Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Michigan governor proposes massive cuts to fund business tax cut

Michigan governor proposes massive cuts to fund business tax cut

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Michigan’s new Republican governor Rick Snyder announced a budget February 17 that attacks the elderly, schoolchildren, public employees, municipal services, and low- to middle-income earners. The $1.7 billion that the governor proposes to raise through a combination of budget cuts and tax increases for retirees and workers will be used to finance a $1.8 billion tax break for businesses.

Snyder’s plan constitutes an open and direct transfer of wealth from the working class to the wealthy. The claim by the governor that his budget represents a vision of “shared sacrifice” is absurd on its face. The rich and the corporate elite are not being asked to sacrifice a penny.

In order to raise $900 million, Snyder proposes putting an end to Michigan’s practice of not taxing retirement income, a move that Eric Schneidewind of the American Association for Retired People described as equivalent to declaring “war on older Michiganders.” Tens of thousands of retirees who live off public and private pensions earned over decades of work will see their incomes decline, under conditions in which many of those who once worked in the auto industry have seen their health insurance slashed.

At the same time, Snyder’s budget will eliminate other tax exemptions for the elderly, as well as families with children, and make many middle-income working people ineligible for Michigan’s homestead property tax credit.

While Snyder made no mention of the issue in last Thursday’s address, he is also proposing to ax the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which gives a several hundred dollar tax break to 800,000 of Michigan’s poorest residents. Speaking on the issue, Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley blithely told lawmakers recently, “We don’t believe there is any additional incentive for adding it to the Michigan tax code.”

Speaking to the Detroit Free Press on Friday, the governor indicated that the money withheld from the poor by axing the EITC would be used to fund Medicare. He warned all those lobbying against the elimination of the tax credit that if they pressed the issue, the state would end up reducing payments to Medicare doctors, thereby further crippling the already overstretched program.

In addition, the governor’s proposed budget calls for slashing aid to state municipalities by $400 million. Local governments across Michigan are describing the reduction as a catastrophic measure that will dramatically affect emergency services, public transportation, infrastructure, parks and recreation, as well as health and safety. Detroit, for example, will lose $178 million, and Flint, also once a leading industrial town, $8.1 million, or 40 percent of the city’s entire operating budget.

Using a competitive model pioneered by the Obama administration in its Race to the Top education policy, Snyder has said that up to $200 million in funding for municipalities could be restored in those areas where representatives agree to enforce wage and benefit reductions, job cuts, and other attacks on public employees.

At the statewide level, Snyder is proposing that Lansing do its part to drive down the living standards of government workers by demanding they pay higher premiums for their health care and slashing other benefits. This will save the state $180 million.

The Detroit News reports that Michigan Budget Director John Nixon “said unions will have a strong incentive to come to the table because the state will have to look at other options if the savings on health care premiums and other costs are not found.” While the newspaper added that Nixon claimed he was not alluding to layoffs, it is clear the threat of this will be used to try to browbeat public employees into accepting concessions.

In the sphere of education, Snyder proposes reducing funding for public universities by 15 percent, or $225 million. In an effort to sow division between K-12 and university educators, the governor has suggested that the state’s K-12 education fund, which currently has a $672 million surplus, be handed over to Michigan’s community colleges and universities to offset their loses. The effect will be a $249 per-pupil reduction in K-12 spending. At the same time, the governor’s budget proposes that public school teachers be made to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums, significantly reducing educators’ wages.

Experts have calculated that when all the proposed cuts affecting public education are combined, in reality Michigan schools will see a $700 reduction in per-pupil spending.

Providing some indication of what’s in store for Michigan’s public schools statewide, state officials announced that they had approved plans by Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Robert Bobb to close half of the district’s schools, consolidate operations and increase high school class sizes to 60. Bobb has been authorized to immediately implement his financial restructuring plans.

The scale of the bloodletting being planned is such that Michigan Schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan, who backs Governor Snyder’s plans, was forced to encourage people in a Friday podcast “not to panic.” His remark was, no doubt, made with fears in mind that mass protests could erupt against the proposed budget in Michigan, similar to those ongoing in the nearby state of Wisconsin.

Other cuts on the table in Snyder’s budget include axing $42 million from prisons, slashing 300 field positions at the Department of Human Services, eliminating grants for reduced class sizes and bilingual education, closing Michigan State Police outposts, shuttering the Workers’ Compensation Appellate Commission and ending dairy farm inspections.

While laying waste to public services across the state, Snyder’s budget is a corporate boondoggle. If passed, it will replace the Michigan Business Tax with a flat six percent corporate income tax, a move that will give a slight boost to small businesses—a fact receiving wide coverage in the press—but overwhelmingly benefiting large companies. The state chamber of commerce and other business organizations have applauded the governor’s budget enthusiastically.

Observers have noted that despite the scale of the cuts being proposed, the state’s overall budget will decline only slightly, given the decrease in business taxes. The $1.8 billion to be forked over to corporate interests is roughly equivalent to the state’s budget deficit.

What is being proposed in Michigan by the Snyder administration is a variant of what is happening in state after state, under Democratic or Republican control alike, across the US. In carrying out draconian budget cuts, state representatives are following in the footsteps of the Obama administration, which has proposed a $1 trillion reduction in federal spending.

Working people in Michigan must begin to mobilize politically to fight against the assault taking place, joining the struggle of their fellow workers in neighboring states and internationally. They should not accept the false support of the trade unions and the Democratic Party, which openly accept the claim that ordinary people must “make sacrifices.” These forces have systematically worked to impose those sacrifices on the population for decades. A genuine struggle demands a movement of working people that is independent of any party of the political establishment, and above all, thoroughly rejects the idea that the interests of private profit should reign supreme.

Libya Descends Into Chaos

Moammar Gadhafi Should Step Down: Libyan UN Diplomats

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The Libyan ambassador to the United States also said he could no longer support Gadhafi, the ambassador to India planned to resign, and the ambassador to Bangladesh quit to protest the killing of family members by government troops. Almost all Libyan diplomats at the United Nations backed deputy ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi's pleas to Gadhafi to end his 40-year rule and to the international community to intervene.

The U.N. spokesperson's office said late Monday that the Security Council had scheduled consultations on the situation in Libya for Tuesday morning. Earlier, Dabbashi had called for an urgent meeting of the Security Council to take action to stop the bloodshed.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hopes that "the Security Council will take this matter on an urgent basis," according to a transcript of his remarks at a Los Angeles news conference released by the U.N. spokesperson's office.

Ban said it was up to the Security Council to decide whether to call for some sort of "no-fly zone" over Libya to protect protesters from attacks by Libyan aircraft.

As diplomatic support for Gadhafi began to crumble, Dabbashi warned that if he doesn't leave, "the Libyan people will get rid of him."

Gadhafi's security forces unleashed the most deadly crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, with reports Monday that demonstrators were being fired at from helicopters and warplanes. After seven days of protests and deadly clashes in Libya's eastern cities, the eruption of turmoil in the capital, Tripoli, sharply escalated the challenge to Gadhafi.

Ban expressed outrage late Monday at the reported aerial attacks and said the "violence against demonstrators must immediately stop."

"I have seen very disturbing and shocking scenes, where Libyan authorities have been firing at demonstrators from warplanes and helicopters," Ban told reporters in Los Angeles. "This is unacceptable. This must stop immediately. This is a serious violation of international humanitarian law."

Ban said he had spoken to Gadhafi earlier Monday to urge him to end the violence and respect the human rights of demonstrators.

Libya's ambassador in Washington, Ali Adjali, told BBC World that the reports of firing from warplanes spurred his decision not to support the government any more.

"To me it is a very sad moment seeing Libyans killing other Libyans," he said. "I'm not supporting the government killing its people. ... I'm (not) resigning Moammar Gadhafi's government, but I am with the people. I am representing the people in the street, the people who've been killed, the people who've been destroyed. Their life is in danger."

Dabbashi, the deputy U.N. ambassador, also said he and the U.N. diplomats were not resigning because they served the people of Libya and not the regime.

"This is in fact a declaration of war against the Libyan people," he told reporters, surrounded by a dozen Libyan diplomats. "The regime of Gadhafi has already started the genocide against the Libyan people."

Libya's U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Shalgham was not present at Dabbashi's press conference. He told the U.N. correspondent for the pan-Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat, that all diplomats at Libya's mission supported Dabbashi "excluding me." Shalgham said he was in touch with the Gadhafi government and was trying "to persuade them to stop these acts."

Libya's ambassador to Bangladesh, A.H. Elimam, resigned to protest the killing of family members by government soldiers in Libya, said a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said Elimam informed the foreign ministry about his resignation late Monday.

In New Delhi, an Indian diplomatic official told the AP that the Libyan ambassador to India intends to resign. However, as of Tuesday morning the ambassador, Ali al-Essawi, had not officially met with the foreign ministry to turn in his credentials.

Earlier, al-Essawi told the BBC he was resigning because of "massive violence against Libyan civilians." Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, who resigned Sunday as Libya's ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, demanded that Gadhafi and his commanders and aides be put on trial for "the mass killings in Libya."

"Gadhafi's regime is now in the trash of history because he betrayed his nation and his people," al-Houni said in a statement.

A Libyan diplomat in China, Hussein el-Sadek el-Mesrati, told Al-Jazeera, "I resigned from representing the government of Mussolini and Hitler."

Libyan embassies in Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, were closed Tuesday, according to non-diplomatic workers who answered the telephones.

Gadhafi appeared very briefly on Libyan state television early Tuesday to attempt to show he was still in charge and dispel rumors that he had fled.

Gadhafi is reportedly using mercenaries against the protesters and Dabbashi urged the international community to impose a no-flight zone "on the cities of Libya so no mercenaries, no supplies of arms will arrive to the regime."

Dabbashi also urged the international community to establish safe passage for medical supplies from neighboring Tunisia and Egypt to get across the borders to Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, which was the scene of the heaviest fighting. By Monday, protesters had claimed control of the city, overrunning its main security headquarters.

"We also call on the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate the crimes against humanity committed by Gadhafi against the Libyan people," Dabbashi told the Associated Press.

The best scenario, he said, "is to have him before the court, to prosecute him and to know from him everything about the crimes he committed before, whether it is ... the genocide he is committing now or the disappearance of certain important personalities... and all the other crimes he has committed during the 42 years in power."

Dabbashi also called on all countries to refuse entry to Gadhafi if he tries to escape and to monitor financial transactions if he tries to send money outside Libya.

Some 70 human rights groups called for immediate international action "to halt the mass atrocities now being perpetrated by the Libyan government against its own people."

The groups urged the U.N. Security Council to meet and take action to protect Libyan civilians from "crimes against humanity," and they urged the U.N. General Assembly to suspend Libya from membership on the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

The signatories included the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, Physicians for Human Rights, Geneva-based UN Watch, and groups from many other countries including South Africa, Switzerland, India, Nigeria, Germany, Pakistan, Venezuela and Britain.

Public Worker Protests Spread From Wisconsin to Ohio

Public Worker Protests Spread From Wisconsin to Ohio

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In what union leaders say is becoming a national fight, protests against legislation to restrict public employees’ collective-bargaining rights spread from Wisconsin to Ohio.

In Madison, Wisconsin, crowds that police estimated at 25,000 engulfed the Capitol and its lawns yesterday during a third-straight day of protests as Democratic senators fled the legislative session. In Columbus, Ohio, about 3,800 state workers, teachers and other public employees came to the statehouse for a committee hearing. President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohioan, argued over whether the bills are “an assault on unions.”

Ohio firefighters Dave Hefflinger and Jerry Greer said they were. They stood near hundreds of workers elbow-to-elbow in the statehouse atrium and listened to a Senate hearing through speakers. Chants of “Kill the bill” echoed.

“We’re here to support our brothers and sisters,” Hefflinger, a 27-year veteran, said in an interview. “They’re trying to take away what we fought for all of these years.”

Hefflinger, 49, and Greer, 39, members of the department in Findlay, Ohio, drove two hours south to protest the bill. The measure would eliminate collective bargaining for state workers, prevent local-government employees from negotiating for health insurance and replace salary schedules with merit pay.

With states facing deficits that may reach a combined $125 billion next year, Republican governors including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie are targeting changes in rules for collective bargaining and worker contributions for health-care coverage and pensions.

Wisconsin Walkouts

In Wisconsin, Walker championed a bill that would make public workers bargain only for wages and require them to pay 5.8 percent of their pension costs; they pay nothing now. They would have to foot 12 percent of their health-care premiums, up from 6 percent. Police and firefighters wouldn’t be covered by the measure.

Fourteen Democratic senators disappeared from the Capitol yesterday, just as the Senate was about to begin debating, according to the Associated Press. Their flight brought the debate to a swift halt by denying the chamber a quorum, the news agency said.

‘Don’t Blink’

Yesterday, University of Wisconsin-Madison students walked out of classes at the urging of student government and campus newspapers and marched to the Capitol, about a mile away. There, they joined protesters who filled the rotunda to chant, bang drums and sing, and spilled outside.

In a telephone interview Feb. 15, Walker said he spoke with Kasich about the demonstrations. When asked for advice, Walker said, “Don’t blink.”

The White House’s political operation, Organizing for America, helped to build crowds using social media, the Washington Post reported today, citing an unidentified Democratic Party official. Obama himself spoke to Milwaukee television station WTMJ.

“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions,” the president said.

Boehner, a Republican from a Cincinnati suburb, responded with a statement saying he was “disappointed” that Obama criticized Walker.

Dire Challenges

“Republicans in Congress -- and reform-minded GOP governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich and Chris Christie -- are daring to speak the truth about the dire fiscal challenges Americans face at all levels of government, and daring to commit themselves to solutions that will liberate our economy and help put our citizens on a path to prosperity,” Boehner said.

The bills are state-level skirmishes in a national battle, and the purpose is to undermine labor unions and the Democrats they support, said John Russo, a professor and co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

“It’s really an ideological battle that’s being fought across the country right now,” Russo said yesterday in an interview while waiting to testify before the Ohio Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee. “This is a real teaching moment. Let’s have this debate about the role of the public sector.”

There were 50 witnesses scheduled, and Chairman Kevin Bacon said the committee would hear them without a break.

“This is a true test of democracy,” Bacon said.

Biggest Crowd

The statehouse spokesman, Gregg Dodd, estimated the crowd at about 3,800 and said it was the largest gathering inside the statehouse since it was renovated in 1996.

Mixing with protesters were members of Tea Party groups who staged their own rally in support of the legislation.

Mike Wilson, who founded the Cincinnati Tea Party, said the bill is an effort to restore balance between governments and their workers, who he said are overpaid.

“This bill is not on attack on public employees; it is not an attack on the middle class,” Wilson, 34, a technology consultant, said at the rally. “This bill is about math.”

Joe Rugola, the former president of the Ohio AFL-CIO who also is executive director of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, said he represents bus drivers and janitors who earn about $24,000 a year.

“I’m still looking for this privileged class of workers,” Rugola said in an interview while waiting to testify. “This is just part of a national attack on working people.”

U.S. Government Shuts Down 84,000 Websites, ‘By Mistake’

U.S. Government Shuts Down 84,000 Websites, ‘By Mistake’

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The US Government has yet again shuttered several domain names this week. The Department of Justice and Homeland Security’s ICE office proudly announced that they had seized domains related to counterfeit goods and child pornography. What they failed to mention, however, is that one of the targeted domains belongs to a free DNS provider, and that 84,000 websites were wrongfully accused of links to child pornography crimes.

As part of “Operation Save Our Children” ICE’s Cyber Crimes Center has again seized several domain names, but not without making a huge error. Last Friday, thousands of site owners were surprised by a rather worrying banner that was placed on their domain.

“Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution,” was the worrying message they read on their websites.

As with previous seizures, ICE convinced a District Court judge to sign a seizure warrant, and then contacted the domain registries to point the domains in question to a server that hosts the warning message. However, somewhere in this process a mistake was made and as a result the domain of a large DNS service provider was seized.

The domain in question is mooo.com, which belongs to the DNS provider FreeDNS. It is the most popular shared domain at afraid.org and as a result of the authorities’ actions a massive 84,000 subdomains were wrongfully seized as well. All sites were redirected to the banner below.

This banner was visible on the 84,000 sites

CP banner

The FreeDNS owner was taken by surprise and quickly released the following statement on their website. “Freedns.afraid.org has never allowed this type of abuse of its DNS service. We are working to get the issue sorted as quickly as possible.”

Eventually, on Sunday the domain seizure was reverted and the subdomains slowly started to point to the old sites again instead of the accusatory banner. However, since the DNS entries have to propagate, it took another 3 days before the images disappeared completely.

Most of the subdomains in question are personal sites and sites of small businesses. A search on Bing still shows how innocent sites were claimed to promote child pornography. A rather damaging accusation, which scared and upset many of the site’s owners.

One of the customers quickly went out to assure visitors that his site was not involved in any of the alleged crimes.

“You can rest assured that I have not and would never be found to be trafficking in such distasteful and horrific content. A little sleuthing shows that the whole of the mooo.com TLD is impacted. At first, the legitimacy of the alerts seems to be questionable — after all, what reputable agency would display their warning in a fancily formatted image referenced by the underlying HTML? I wouldn’t expect to see that.”

Even at the time of writing people can still replicate the effect by adding “74.81.170.110 mooo.com” to their hosts file as the authorities have not dropped the domain pointer yet. Adding mooo.com will produce a different image than picking a random domain (child porn vs. copyright), which confirms the mistake.

Although it is not clear where this massive error was made, and who’s responsible for it, the Department of Homeland security is conveniently sweeping it under the rug. In a press release that went out a few hours ago the authorities were clearly proud of themselves for taking down 10 domain names.

However, DHS conveniently failed to mention that 84,000 websites were wrongfully taken down in the process, shaming thousands of people in the process.

“Each year, far too many children fall prey to sexual predators and all too often, these heinous acts are recorded in photos and on video and released on the Internet,” Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano commented.

“DHS is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to shut down websites that promote child pornography to protect these children from further victimization,” she added.

A noble initiative, but one that went wrong, badly. The above failure again shows that the seizure process is a flawed one, as has been shown several times before in earlier copyright infringement sweeps. If the Government would only allow for due process to take place, this and other mistakes wouldn’t have been made.

Coverage on previous copyright related seizures can be found here, here and here.

Bahrain: The Social Roots of Revolt Against Another US Ally

Bahrain: The Social Roots of Revolt Against Another US Ally

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Bahrain, February 18. 2011. “Have you ever seen an island with no beaches?” The question posed by the young Bahraini taxi man standing among thousands of chanting anti-government protesters seemed at first to be a bit off the wall. But his explanation soon got to the heart of the grievances that have brought tens of thousands of Bahrainis on to the streets over the past week – protests which have seen at least seven civilians killed amid scenes of excessive violence by state security forces. Unconfirmed reports put the death toll much higher.

Many Bahrainis, like the young taxi man, have witnessed huge wealth sloshing around their diminutive country of less than 600,000 indigenous people (perhaps another 300,000 are expatriates, official figures are vague). But so little of that wealth – especially in the last seven years of high oil prices when Bahrain’s national revenue tripled – has found its way into creating jobs and decent accommodation. More than 50,000 Bahraini families are estimated to be on waiting lists for homes. Some families have been waiting for over 20 years to be housed, with several generations sharing the one roof, in cramp conditions with poor sanitation.

All the while, these people have come to feel like strangers in their own land, with their squalid conditions in inner-city areas and villages being in sharp contrast to the mega shopping malls and multi-storey buildings that have sprung up to attract US and European investors, financiers, companies and rich tourists.

The Gulf island’s oil wealth has been channeled into diversifying the economy away from dependence on oil and gas revenues into other sectors such as property development and international banking. The self-styled kingdom, which is sandwiched less than 30 kilometers on either side between the oil and gas giants of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has leveraged its hydrocarbon wealth to earn a reputation as a finance and trade hub in the Middle East on a par with Dubai located further south along the Arabian Peninsula in the United Arab Emirates.

But that reputation for being a cutting-edge capitalist hub – Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf region to have signed a free trade agreement with the US – comes at a heavy social and ecological cost. And it’s a cost that seems to have pushed a large section of the population too far, to the point where they are emulating the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world to demand long-overdue democratic rights.

In the early hours of Thursday, up to five thousand Bahraini protesters were forced from the main demonstration site at the Pearl Roundabout, a landmark intersection in the capital, Manama. The Bahraini authorities deployed helicopters, dozens of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, with army and police firing teargas and live rounds. Among the protesters were hundreds of women and children.

At the centre of the site is the Pearl Monument, which alludes to the country’s traditional pearl diving and fishing industries – industries that were the mainstay of communities.

Within view of the monument are the iconic skyscrapers of Bahrain’s newfound wealth, including the Financial Harbour and the World Trade Center. Only a few years ago, this entire area of the capital was sea, the land having been reclaimed and developed. Up to 20 per cent of Bahrain’s total land area has been reclaimed from the sea over the past three decades.

However, this vast reclamation and development drive has, according to local environmental groups, devastated the island’s marine ecology and fish stocks in particular. The rampant development – which has made fortunes for the country’s elite – has had an equally devastating effect on local communities who have depended on the sea for their livelihoods. While these communities have suffered the blight of unemployment and poverty, they also have witnessed roaring property development, land prices and profits benefiting the ruling elite.

These communities have watched their country’s oil wealth being directed to serve elite interests with development plans that are geared to lure international capital. This has led to swathes of coastal areas being confiscated by members of the extended Al Khalifa royal family, to be earmarked for future reclamation and skyscraper development. That is how Bahrain has become something of a paradox – an island without any beaches. And it is this lopsided, elite-orientated development that is fuelling deep social grievances among the masses, grievances that are now being directed at those elites. Further state repression against such protests can only amplify these grievances.

Bahrain’s unstable social formation is underpinned by unwavering US diplomatic and military support. The island serves as the base for the US Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf. The latest wave of state repression has tellingly elicited only a subdued, ambivalent comment from Washington, urging “all sides to refrain from violence” – Washington-speak that translates into support for the government. Last year, Bahrain received $19.5 million in US military aid, which, on a per capita basis, equates to greater than that delivered to Egypt.

Once again, another uprising against another US-designated “important ally” seems to be underway in the Arab world. And once again, the contradiction of elite rule and widespread poverty – all the more glaring in oil-rich countries – is ultimately undermining Washington’s imperial designs.

Newest Gulf Report: Oil, Soot and Dead Animals on Sea Floor

Newest Gulf Report: Oil, Soot and Dead Animals on Sea Floor


Reporting her results from a fifth Gulf of Mexico expedition ending this past December, University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha Joye has been to the bottom and back, and her findings are anything but optimistic.

Her team has found numerous expanses of oil and soot covered sea floor that were “chemically finger-printed” as deriving from the BP Macondo deep sea well. The soot was the result, she believes, of the burning of oil, which then settled to the bottom with its load of toxic by-products. And, scattered throughout the toxic blanket: large numbers of dead brittle stars, crabs, and even suffocated tube worms.

This Dec. 1, 2010 photo provided by the University of Georgia, made from the submarine Alvin, shows a dead crab with oil residue near it on a still-damaged sea floor about 10 miles north of the BP oil rig accident. Marine biologist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia said, We consistently saw dead fauna (animals) at all these sites. It's likely there's a fairly large area impacted," she said. (AP Photo/ University of Georgia, Samantha Joye)

Joye’s report comes as a bit of a surprise (even to Joye); previous studies commissioned by Kenneth Feinberg, the government’s oil compensation fund czar, were optimistic that the Gulf would “almost fully recover by 2012.”

“I’ve been to the bottom. I’ve seen what it looks like with my own eyes.” — Samantha Joye, marine scientist

Other studies (NOAA, DOE) asserted that “magic microbes” — petro-chemical digesting marine bacteria — had effectively eliminated most of the oil (note: the DOE study was funded through a BP grant). But Joye and her colleagues counter-claim that, in fact, barely 10% of the spilled oil had been “digested”, and that the remainder was still in the Gulf. Her team’s study was also more widespread (covering 2600 sq. miles) than the others and they took more core samples. This current study relied on 250 samples taken within a radius of the Macondo well.

A Microbe Mystery

Joye believes that something else is disrupting the oil decomposition process. That something maybe methane (CH4, a hydrocarbon gas) or the consequence of its injection into the water column and bottom ecosystem. Joye’s team also recently published a paper in Nature Geoscience, asserting that previous studies had completely over-looked the volume and impact of the methane that also spilled into the Gulf fallowing the explosion. Their study estimated that “up to 500,000 t[ons] of gaseous hydrocarbons [spilled] into the deep ocean and that these gaseous emissions comprised 40% of the total hydrocarbon discharge.”

Video grab of work continuing on equipment at the site of the BP oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico

The team’s analysis of water around the wellhead revealed distinct layers of dissolved hydrocarbon (between 1000 and 1300 meters) that exceeded the background dissolved methane level by 75,000 times.

Methane gas can compete with the bio-availability of oxygen (i.e., the water’s ability to absorb O2) and/or inhibit the metabolic functions of the bacteria that naturally consume oil residues. More in depth study is needed to show definitive evidence of what is interfering with the microbial “magic” and/or the role played, if any, by the methane gas leakage.

The results of this most recent, inventory were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington.

Quoting Joye from an AP interview (see article link, below): “I’ve been to the bottom. I’ve seen what it looks like with my own eyes. It’s not going to be fine by 2012.

Read the original AP story ‘Scientist finds Gulf bottom still oily, dead‘ by Seth Borenstein

For more information about Samantha Joye’s work, visit her website: http://www.marsci.uga.edu/directory/mjoye.htm

For more information about the on-going effort to restore the Gulf, visit the NOAA site: http://www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/

Top photos: courtesy of the Univ. of Georgia

bottom photo: BP handout

Will the House of Saud Be the Next to Go Down?

Will the House of Saud Be the Next to Go Down?

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Here's a crash course on how one of "our" - monarchic - dictators treats his own people during the great 2011 Arab revolt.

The king of Bahrain, Hamad al-Khalifa, has blood on his hands after his mercenary security forces - Pakistani, Indian, Syrian and Jordanian - with no previous warning, attacked sleeping, peaceful protesters at 3 am on Thursday at the Pearl roundabout, the tiny Gulf country's version of Cairo's Tahrir Square.

In the brutal crackdown, at least five people have been killed - including a young child - and 2,000 injured, some by gunshots, two of these in critical condition. Riot police targeted doctors and medics and prevented ambulances and blood donors from reaching the Pearl roundabout. A doctor at Salmaniya hospital told al-Jazeera there was a refrigerated truck outside the hospital, which he fears the army has used to remove more dead bodies.

The resourceful Maryama Alkawaka of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights was there; "It was very violent, [the police] were not showing any mercy." An avalanche of tweets from Bahrainis denounced an "Israeli-style" sneak attack and shoot-to-kill approach. And many have denounced al-Jazeera for not having kept a live satellite link as it had in Cairo, and for implying that this was only a Shi'ite protest. The Pearl roundabout is now surrounded by nearly 100 tanks at every entrance and exit. Downtown Manama has been turned into a ghost city.

The Shi'ite opposition described it as "real terrorism". Reem Khalifa, senor editor at the opposition newspaper al-Wasat, said, "The regime forces just came and massacred a crowd of people as they slept." They had been "chanting together, shouting 'neither Sunni nor Shi'ite but Bahraini'. We have not seen this before. And this is what annoyed the government agents the most - they are always trying to divide the people ... And now the regime is spreading lies about me and other journalists who are trying to say what is happening."

Khalifa had the courage to stand up and harshly confront Bahrain's foreign minister at a press conference, totally debunking his version of events (he called the deaths "regrettable" but insisted protesters were sectarian, and armed).

The Gulf Cooperation Council - the scandalously wealthy club of local kingdoms which holds over US$1 trillion stashed away in foreign reserves and almost 50% of the world's proven oil reserves still underground - issued, what else, a bland statement supporting Bahrain.

Kill them, but with a velvet glove
Is Washington remotely outraged by all this? The record speaks for itself. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "deep concern", according to the State Department, and "urged restraint". The Pentagon said Bahrain was "an important partner"; later Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman - certainly to make sure everything was dandy with the US Navy's 5th Fleet and its 2,250 personnel housed in an isolated compound inside 24 hectares in the center of Manama.

Even the New York Times was forced to acknowledge that US President Barack Obama had "yet to issue the blunt public criticism of Bahrain's rulers that he eventually leveled against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt - or that he has repeatedly aimed at the mullahs in Iran". But he can't; after all, Bahrain's I-shot-my-people king is another usual suspect, a "pillar of the American security architecture in the Middle East", and "a staunch ally of Washington in its showdown with Iran's Shi'ite theocracy".

Under these strategic circumstances, it's hard to dismiss Lebanese political scientist and blogger at the Angry Arab website As'ad AbuKhalil, when he stresses, "The US had to plot the repression of Bahrain to appease Saudi Arabia and other Arab tyrants who were mad at Obama for not defending Mubarak to the every end."

Incidentally, Saudi Arabia's prince Talal Bin Abdulaziz - father of the billionaire darling of the West prince Al Waleed bin Talal - told the BBC there's a danger the protests in Bahrain could spill into Saudi Arabia.

It's never enough to stress Bahrain is all about Iran vs Saudi Arabia (see All about the Pearl roundabout Asia Times Online, February 18).

The US naval base in Manama translates as a cop on the (Persian Gulf) beat. Moreover, 15% of Saudi Arabia's population is Shi'ite, living in the eastern provinces, where the oil is. That makes it very hard for Bahrainis - Shi'ite and even Sunni - to threaten the ruling, Sunni, al-Khalifa dynasty, as the House of Saud will immediately rush in with all sorts of logistical and military support.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia has huge leverage over Bahrain's oil, which comes from the shared Abu Saafa oilfield, explored by Saudi Aramco and shared with a Bahraini refiner.

Bahrain is far from swimming in oil. According to International Monetary Fund figures, in 2010 Saudi Arabia produced roughly 8.5 million barrels of oil a day; the United Arab Emirates 2.4 million barrels; Kuwait 2.3 million barrels; and Bahrain only 200,000 barrels.

According to Moody's, to balance its budget the Bahrain government needs oil at $80 a barrel, "one of the highest budgetary ‘break-even' points in the region", says the Financial Times. As a Barclays Capital report puts it with typical corporate contortionism, "The announcements of street protests, concessions by the government at the cost of a deteriorating fiscal position and simmering political tensions have created a backdrop that has clearly caused investors to view Bahrain with increased caution."

So if protesters really want to hit the al-Khalifa where it hurts, they should aim at the nexus oil business/financial sector. It will be an extraordinary uphill struggle against a nasty police state crammed with mercenaries - especially Jordanian military consultants (the "master torturer" of the Mukhabarat is a Jordanian) and now also counting on "help" from Saudi tanks and troops. Moreover, the riot police and special forces don't speak the local dialect, and in the case of Balochis from Pakistan, don't even speak Arabic.

Prospects are bleak. The inside dope in Manama is of a split within the royal family. The dreaded, sectarian Khalid bin Ahmed, responsible for the policy of naturalizing "imported" Sunnis to alter the demographic balance and dilute even more the voting rights of the indigenous Shi'ite population, would be on one side; and the king plus Crown Prince Salman (Gates' pal) would be on the other. The king may be losing control. And in this case Saudi Arabia would be lobbying for bin Ahmed to take over and get one of the king's sons, Nasir Bin Hamed to be crown prince. This does make sense if seen under the angle of the brutal crackdown.

Time to cross the bridge
What Bahrain's Shi'ites can certainly accomplish is to inspire Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia in terms of a long fight for greater social, economic and religious equality. It's wishful thinking to bet on the House of Saud reforming itself - not while enjoying extraordinary oil wealth and maintaining a vast repression apparatus, more than enough to buy or intimidate any form of dissent.

Yet there may be reasons to dream of Saudi Arabia following the winds of new Egypt. The average age of the House of Saud trio of ruling princes is 83. Of the country's indigenous population of 18.5 million, 47% is under 18. A medieval conception of Islam, as well as overwhelming corruption, is under increasing vigilance on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

The middle class is shrinking. 40% of the population actually lives under the seal of poverty, has access to virtually no education, and is in fact unemployable (90% of all employees are "imported" Sunnis). Even crossing the causeway to Manama is enough to give people ideas.

Once again, talk about an extraordinary uphill struggle - in a country with no political parties - or labor unions, or student organizations; with any sort of protests and strikes outlawed; and with members of the shura council appointed by the king.

The Arab News newspaper anyway has already warned that those winds of freedom from northern Africa may hit Saudi Arabia. And it may all revolve around youth unemployment, at an unsustainable 40%. There's no question; the great 2011 Arab revolt will only fulfill its historic mission when it shakes the foundations of the House of Saud. Young Saudi Sunnis and Shi'ites, you have nothing to lose but your fear.

Corporations to Government: Give Us More, Tax Us Less

The real reason for public finance crisis

If you want to know why we have budget deficits all over, look no further than the roaring success of corporate tax avoidance

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    Nothing better shows corporate control over the government than Washington's basic response to the current economic crisis. First, we had "the rescue", then "the recovery". Trillions in public money flowed to the biggest US banks, insurance companies, etc. That "bailed" them out (is it just me or is there a suggestion of criminality in that phrase?), while we waited for benefits to "trickle down" to the rest of us.

    As usual, the "trickle-down" part has not happened. Large corporations and their investors kept the government's money for themselves; their profits and stock market "recovered" nicely. We get unemployment, home-foreclosures, job benefit cuts and growing job insecurity. As the crisis hits states and cities, politicians avoid raising corporate taxes in favour of cutting government services and jobs – witness Wisconsin, etc.

    Might government bias favouring corporations be deserved, a reward for taxes they pay? No: corporations – especially the larger ones – have avoided taxes as effectively as they have controlled government expenditures to benefit them.

    Compare income taxes received by the federal government from individuals and from corporations (their profits are treated as their income), based on statistics from the Office of Management and the Budget in the White House, and the trend is clear. During the Great Depression, federal income tax receipts from individuals and corporations were roughly equal. During the second world war, income tax receipts from corporations were 50% greater than from individuals. The national crises of depression and war produced successful popular demands for corporations to contribute significant portions of federal tax revenues.

    US corporations resented that arrangement, and after the war, they changed it. Corporate profits financed politicians' campaigns and lobbies to make sure that income tax receipts from individuals rose faster than those from corporations and that tax cuts were larger for corporations than for individuals. By the 1980s, individual income taxes regularly yielded four times more than taxes on corporations' profits.

    Since the second world war, corporations have shifted much of the federal tax burden from themselves to the public – and especially onto the middle-income members of the public. No wonder a tax "revolt" developed, yet it did not push to stop or reverse that shift. Corporations had focused public anger elsewhere, against government expenditures as "wasteful" and against public employees as inefficient.

    Organisations such as Chambers of Commerce and corporations' academic and political allies together shaped the public debate. They did not want it to be about who does and does not pay the taxes. Instead, they steered the "tax revolt" against taxes in general (on businesses and individuals alike). The corporations' efforts saved them far more in reduced taxes than the costs of their political contributions, lobbyists' fees and public relations campaigns.

    At the same time, corporations also lobbied successfully for many loopholes in the tax laws. The official federal tax rate on profits is now around 35% for large corporations, which theoretically have to pay additional state taxes on their profits and local taxes on their property (land, buildings, business inventories, etc). Those official and theoretical tax obligations have been used to support conservatives' claims that corporations pay half or more of their profits to federal, state and local levels of government combined. However, because of loopholes, the truth is very different. The actual tax payments of corporations, and especially large corporations, are far lower than their official, theoretical obligations.

    The most comprehensive recent study of what larger corporations actually pay by three academic accountants – professors at Duke, MIT and the University of North Carolina – gets at that truth. It examined a large sample of corporations. Their average turned out to be a rate of total taxation (federal, state and local combined) below 30 %. The study concluded:

    "We find a significant fraction of firms that appear to be able to successfully avoid large portions of the corporate income tax over sustained periods of time. Using a 10-year measure of tax avoidance, 546 firms, comprising 26.3% of our sample, are able to maintain a cash effective tax rate of 20% or less. The mean firm has a 10-year cash effective tax rate of approximately 29.6%."

    General Electric (GE) deserves special mention. The New York Times reported that its total tax payment amounted to 14.3% over the last five years. Citizens for Tax Justice corrected that down to 3.4%, as the profits tax it paid in the US. Thus, GE paid a far lower tax rate on its income than most Americans paid on theirs. In 2009, GE received a huge $140bn bailout guarantee of its debt from Washington. By choosing GE's chief executive, Jeffrey R Immelt, to head his economic advisory panel, President Obama effectively rewarded the corporate programme: give us more and tax us less.

    Corporations repeated at the state and local levels what they accomplished federally. According to the US Census Bureau, corporations paid taxes on their profits to states and localities totalling $24.7bn in 1988, while individuals then paid income taxes of $90bn. However, by 2009, while corporate tax payments had roughly doubled (to $49.1bn), individual income taxes had more than tripled (to $290bn).

    If corporations paid taxes proportionate to the benefits they get from government and in fair proportion to what individuals pay, most US citizens would finally get the tax relief they so desperately seek.

Governor Walker's Own Statement Proves that His Assault on Public Employees Has Nothing to do with Wisconsin's Budget Shortfall

Governor Walker's Own Statement Proves that His Assault on Public Employees Has Nothing to do with Wisconsin's Budget Shortfall

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has a long history trying to break public sector unions. But last week, as the Milwaukee Business Times reported, he insisted that "his bill was strictly based on the need to cut the budget and was not based on any political agenda." Indeed, the bill was introduced by the governor as an "e mergency measure... needed to balance the state budget and give government the tools to manage during economic crisis."

But a close reading of the governor's own press release announcing the measure shows just how misleading that claim really is.

Here's the problem, according to Walker's release:

The state of Wisconsin is facing an immediate deficit of $137 million for the current fiscal year which ends July 1. In addition, bill collectors are waiting to collect over $225 million for a prior raid of the Patients’ Compensation Fund.

There is a $137 million shortfall for this year. Regarding the Patients' Compensation Fund, Politifact reports that "a court ruling is pending in that matter, so the money might not have to be transferred until next budget year."

But here are three important points from the governor's release that show quite clearly that this bill has nothing at all to do with closing Wisconsin's budget gap in the near-term -- as an emergency measure that wasn't even subject to public debate.

1. "The budget repair will also restructure the state debt, lowering the state’s interest rate, saving the state $165 million." That's right, restructuring the state's outstanding debt yields more savings than the projected shortfall, and nobody is objecting to that provision.

2. "It will require state employees to pay about 5.8% toward their pension (about the private sector national average) and about 12% of their healthcare benefits (about half the private sector national average). These changes will help the state save $30 million in the last three months of the current fiscal year." Yes, those give-backs would yield less than 20 percent of what the debt restructuring would bring in. And, as I mentioned earlier, the public employees' unions offered to make those concessions in exchange for losing the provision that would bar them from negotiating their benefits package in the future, and the GOP flatly refused the offer.

3. The collective bargaining provision wouldn't kick in until after the current contracts expire, meaning that the measure would yield exactly zero savings in the current budget.

Random Lengths News' Paul Rosenberg caught this, and adds that Walker is also sitting on an "unused cache of $73 million" in the state's economic development fund -- "more than twice what’s being sought from public sector workers.”

Samuel Smith at Scholars and Rogues has much more detail.

18 Sobering Facts Which Prove That The Middle Class Is Not Being Included In This “Economic Recovery

18 Sobering Facts Which Prove That The Middle Class Is Not Being Included In This “Economic Recovery”

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Have you heard the news? The stock market is absolutely soaring and according to the U.S. government and the Federal Reserve we are in the beginning stages of a robust economic recovery. Yippee! The S&P 500 is up 6.8 percent so far in 2011, and the stock market recently hit a two and a half year high. So shouldn't we all be celebrating? Well, if stock market performance was an accurate measure of economic health, then Zimbabwe would have had one of the healthiest economies on the entire globe during the last decade. But just like Zimbabwe's stock market was artificially pumped up with "funny money" that was rapidly being devalued, so is ours. All of the "quantitative easing" that the Federal Reserve has been doing is pumping plenty of money into the financial markets and is helping to inflate a false stock market bubble, but it is doing very little to alleviate the suffering of the U.S. middle class. In fact, when you take a closer look at the numbers you quickly find out that the suffering of the middle class is getting even worse.

According to Gallup, the unemployment rate is now over 10%. The number of Americans that have given up looking for work recently set a new all-time record. The number of mortgages in foreclosure tied a record high during the fourth quarter of 2010. Gas and food prices are rising rapidly. The number of Americans on food stamps continues to increase every single month.

Yes, right now the economic situation is not in free fall like it was a couple years ago. We should be thankful for that. Periods of relative stability such as we are enjoying now will be few and far between in the years ahead. This "bubble" of economic calm is a great opportunity that we should all be taking advantage of.

However, those that are hoping that this is an economic "turning point" and that things will soon be back to "normal" are going to be greatly disappointed. This is about as "normal" as things are going to be ever again.

Even during this time of relative economic stability, the U.S. middle class is still being ripped to shreds. If there are those among your family and friends that are somehow convinced that the U.S. economy is recovering nicely, you might want want to show them the following 18 very sobering facts....

#1 According to Gallup, the U.S. unemployment rate is currently 10.3 percent. When you add in part-time American workers that want full-time employment, that number rises to 20.2 percent.

#2 According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of job openings in the United States declined for a second straight month during December.

#3 There are currently more than 4 million Americans that have been unemployed for more than a year.

#4 The number of Americans that have become so discouraged that they have given up searching for work completely now stands at an all-time high.

#5 Gasoline prices in the United States recently hit a 28-month high.

#6 During the 4th quarter of 2010, 4.63 percent of all U.S. home loans were in foreclosure. That matched the all-time high, and it was up significantly from 4.39 percent in the 3rd quarter.

#7 It is estimated that there are about 5 million homeowners in the United States that are at least two months behind on their mortgages, and it is being projected that over a million American families will be booted out of their homes this year alone.

#8 Almost 14 percent of all credit card accounts in the United States are currently 90 days or more delinquent.

#9 The average credit card rate in the United States had increased to a whopping 13.44 percent at the end of 2010.

#10 Americans now owe more than $890 billion on student loans, which is even more than they owe on credit cards.

#11 Average household debt in the United States has now reached a level of 136% of average household income. In China, average household debt is only 17% of average household income.

#12 U.S. life expectancy at birth is now three years less than Canada and four years less than Japan.

#13 New home sales in the state of California were at the lowest level ever recorded in the month of January.

#14 43 percent of all mortgages in south Florida are currently underwater.

#15 Prior to the most recent economic downturn, there were usually somewhere around four to five million job openings in America. Today there are about 3 million.

#16 When you adjust wages for inflation, middle class workers in the United States make less money today than they did back in 1971.

#17 One out of every seven Americans is now on food stamps.

#18 One out of every six elderly Americans now lives below the federal poverty line.

You know things are bad when articles start popping up in the mainstream news instructing us how to interact socially with the hordes of unemployed Americans that are out there today. A recent USA Today article entitled "What not to say to someone who is unemployed" listed some of the things that you should not say to someone that does not have a job. The following are some of their suggestions on what NOT to say....

"Hey, have you found anything yet?"

"How's the search going?"

"You just have to pound the pavement."

"Something will turn up."

"It's tough out there."

"Other people are going through the same thing."

"Maybe you're asking for too much money."

"Maybe you should go back to school."

"There are plenty of jobs out there."

I am sure most of us have heard things like this at one time or another. It can be a soul-crushing thing to have others like at you in pity because you don't have a job and you can't pay the mortgage and feed your family.

Most unemployed Americans are not lazy. The vast majority of them desperately want jobs. But the U.S. economy is not producing nearly enough jobs today. As noted above, the U.S. economy currently has about 3 million job openings, but approximately 20 percent of the workforce wants to find a full-time job. The demand for jobs is far, far, far greater than the supply.

Unfortunately, this is the legacy of decades of bad economic decision-making. The U.S. economy should be able to provide work for every single person that wants it, but because of the choices that have been made that will never be the case again.

The middle class in America is being ripped to shreds right in front of our eyes and very little is being done to stop it. Desperation is rising across the nation. More Americans slip into poverty every single day. It is almost as if a cloud of gloom and despair has descended upon the U.S. economy and every single month the situation only seems to get darker.

Bringing Home 150 Troops from Afghanistan Would Fix Wisconsin’s Budget “Crisis”

Bringing Home 150 Troops from Afghanistan Would Fix Wisconsin’s Budget “Crisis”

Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker is using phony budget projections to manufacture a staged “fiscal emergency” in his state so that he can whack programs and political opponents, but even his fake “emergency” pales in comparison to the cost of the Afghanistan War to his state. In fact, the U.S. would only have to bring home 151 troops from Afghanistan to save more money than Walker’s ridiculous union-busting plan. Better yet, ending the Afghanistan War altogether would save taxpayers in Wisconsin $1.7 billion this year alone, more than ten times the amount “saved” in Walker’s attack on state employee rights.

One might ask, “Isn’t Walker’s fake budget crisis a state budget issue? How would ending the Afghanistan War pay for that?” We get this question a lot when we talk about the cost of war to a state’s taxpayer. Keep in mind that state budgets are tangled with federal spending. That’s especially true over the past couple of years, as state budgets have relied on federal Recovery Act funds to balance their books during the recession. Spending decisions at the federal level are therefore doubly important, as they not only affect the national budget, but also what funds are available to help preserve state-level public structures.

That brings us to Walker’s slash-and-burn approach to the state budget. 



“Under Walker’s plan, most public workers – excluding police, firefighters and state troopers – would have to pay half of their pension costs and at least 12 percent of their health-care costs. They would lose bargaining rights for anything other than pay. Walker, who took office last month, says the emergency measure would save $300 million over the next two years to help close a $3.6 billion budget gap.”

So on average, Walker’s slash-and-burn attack on the unions in his state would save $150 million per year for two years. But if Wisconsin is truly in a state of fiscal emergency, as Walker claims, why is he not demanding the president withdraw troops from Afghanistan and make the savings available as fiscal aid to states? Every troop deployed in Afghanistan costs the U.S. $1 million per year, so simply bringing home 151 troops would save more money than his plan. And, with fiscal 2011 Afghanistan War spending alone to top $1.7 billion for Wisconsin taxpayers, an end to the war would free up more than ten times his plan’s cash, which the president could use for state fiscal aid.

Of course, the end of the Afghanistan War would mean that people with whom Walker is cozy would lose some important revenue streams. Remember Wackenhut, the war contractors that disgraced us by holding drunken, nude firelight romps in Afghanistan on the State Department’s dime? Walker got them a sweet privatized state security contract in a prior fit of “cost-savings” that failed to add up. But who needs to rein in death, destruction and obscenity when you can take a whack at the unions, right? Walker’s not actually interested in fixing a supposed emergency. He’s interested in paying off allies and zinging enemies, and you can tell that by his silence on war spending that’s bleeding his state taxpayers dry.

At any rate, state politicians in Wisconsin and beyond are going to have to face a moment of truth when federal stimulus aid runs out at the end of this year. Their citizens hate the Afghanistan War, and they won’t go along with draconian cuts to vital public structures or attacks on collective bargaining. They can either wise up and join the chorus of people calling for an end to the war, or be ready to face tens of thousands of fed-up protesters and angry voters. Your move, folks.

If you’re fed up wit this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter.

What Gov. Walker Won’t Tell You

What Gov. Walker Won’t Tell You

There is a kernel of truth in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s claim of a “budget shortfall” of $137 million. But Walker, a Republican, failed to tell the state that less than two weeks into his term as governor, he, with his swollen Republican majorities in the Wisconsin Legislature, pushed through $117 million in tax breaks for business allies of the GOP. There is your crisis.

The state Legislature’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau—Wisconsin’s equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office and a refuge for professional expertise and nonpartisanship—warned Walker and the Legislature that the measure would create a budget gap. There is your shortfall—and not one resulting from established public employee benefits. Before the tax giveaways, the fiscal agency predicted a surplus for the state.

Now the governor has offered a proposal simple and clear in its intent, and patently dishonest. Walker wants state workers to contribute to their pension fund and is calling for an increase in their payments for medical insurance. Make no mistake: The governor’s “budget repair bill” has little to do with a budget shortfall and everything to do with breaking unions, starting with public employees and then perhaps moving on to others as well.

During his run for governor, Walker had substantial financial support from the Koch brothers, billionaire industrialists who have funded various anti-Obama, anti-science, and anti-national government movements. In short, they are opposed to anyone and anything that might diminish their exorbitant profits. And for the Kochs, destroying labor unions is in the top tier of their to-get-rid-of list.

Walker’s own hostility to labor unions is a touchstone of his prior political experience. He is out to realize his every long-held political fantasy, with the help of such allies as the National Association of Manufacturers; Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce; and the Chamber of Commerce. Ever since the 1930s, when national law recognized the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, that gain has been under assault from right-wing ideologues and much of the business community.

Public employees in Wisconsin, as elsewhere, do not have a recognized “right to strike.” But they have a right to a union, with the power to negotiate wages and the conditions of work. That is Walker’s real target, and after he deals with it perhaps he can move to make Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state, devoid of any protections for labor unions, just like Mississippi. Now we can understand Walker’s mantra: “Wisconsin is open for business.” What a “popular,” appealing position! Everyone likes to complain about bureaucrats and teachers—lazy, incompetent and, withal, overpaid. Never mind that studies portray a public work force earning 8 to 15 percent less than similarly situated private sector employees, with the spread even wider among more educated workers.

The governor and his allies like to frame their goal as one that would destroy the special privileges of public employees—as if a Cadillac class of public workers exists in the state. In truth, many public employees secured increased benefits in the 1970s, a time which saw the notion of a “budget crunch” come into play, and the state bargained its way out of salary increases (incidentally, during a time of rising inflation) in exchange for increased employee benefits.

The “February Thaw” brought out an estimated 50,000 or more public employees, teachers, ordinary citizens and students to demonstrate against Walker’s budget repair bill. Montesquieu, the 18th century French political philosopher, wrote about the impact of environment on human and societal behavior. Cold, icy climates, he said, generally dampened human passions, thus lessening chances of “public disorder.” Walker should have offered his legislation during the first three weeks of January, when temperatures hovered just above zero.

Confronting the protests, Walker has framed the issue in stark, simple terms. It is, he said, a battle between “protesters” and “taxpayers.” That followed the obligatory remarks about outside agitators—shades of Mississippi governors in the 1960s. Indeed, the media obliged him by making the increasingly marginalized Jesse Jackson the centerpiece of the protests, thus seeming to confirm Walker’s contention about outside agitators.

After three days of protests, the largest union offered to concede the pension and health insurance payments in exchange for continued recognition of the right to negotiate wage and working conditions. The governor bluntly replied that the time for negotiations had passed, but the truth is that at no time did he offer any negotiation on these matters. If your ideological baggage has no room for workers’ rights, then you will rule by dictate and fiat. Walker’s baggage overflows with hostility for workers.

Walker insists that the budget shortfall requires that state workers, like everyone else in society, must carry their fair share of the burden. But the governor is causing pain to no one else to remedy the situation. Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder offered a $45 billion cost-cutting budget, but he said he would take only $1 in salary as part of the “shared sacrifice.” Meanwhile, Snyder, unlike Walker, has begun negotiations with public employees unions to increase workers’ shares of pension and health care costs.

Wisconsin state revenues are down as statewide unemployment largely reflects the national picture. Furthermore, there is justifiable despair among the unemployed that their jobs may never return. And if they are over 50, there is only a small chance that they ever will have any job comparable to those they held prior to 2007. Little do they understand that companies continue to enjoy swollen revenues, income that inflates the profit side of their ledgers as they reap benefits from “restructuring”—today’s fashionable euphemism for dropping jobs and employees. The business community now sits on the sidelines, hoarding capital, and workers have little work.

The governor claims he has traveled around the state talking to factory workers and others who say they support him because they must spend 25 to 50 percent of their income on health insurance. Well, if that is the case, and such folks are his supporters, perhaps it is time for Walker to rise to their defense and rein in the gouging health insurers.

Budgets are a mysterious maze. Legislators—let alone a citizenry dependent on a largely incompetent, ill-informed media—rarely know the intricacies of a budget and how it may cause a seismic change in public policy. (For one legislator’s passionate complaint about being kept in ignorance, see this; for examples of the Republicans’ tactics illustrating their belief that democracy is fine for Egypt but another matter for this country, see this.)

Walker himself precipitated the “budget crisis,” necessitating a “repair bill” that gave him and his allies what they really wanted. The governor pursues an agenda backed by the tea party’s financial angels. Public employees and other workers down the line will pay the freight for such folly. The governor lies.

Scott Walker Runs on Koch Money

Scott Walker Runs on Koch Money

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Madison, Wisconsin -- A new investigation by the Center for Media and Democracy documents the big money funneled by one of the richest men in America and one of the richest corporations in the world to put controversial Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in office.

The Republican Governors Association and the Kochs' Investment in Scott Walker

Walker was elected just over three months ago on the heels of an exceptionally expensive gubernatorial race in the Badger State, fueled by groups funded by the Koch brothers, David and Charles. David Koch, the son of a radical founding member of the John Birch Society, which has long been obsessed with claims about socialism and advocated the repeal of civil rights laws, personally donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) in June of last year. This was the most he had ever personally given to that group. (Fellow billionaire Rupert Murdoch matched Koch's donation to the RGA with a $1 million donation from his company News Corporation, parent company of FOX "News" Channel.)

Screen Shot of RGAs 5 million Investment in WalkerThe RGA in turn spent $5 million in the race, mostly on TV ads attacking Walker's political opponent, Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett. As this photo shows, the RGA described itself as a "key investor" in Walker's victory. In its congratulations, the RGA notes that it "ran a comprehensive campaign including TV and internet ads and direct mail. The series of ads were devastating to Tom Barrett ... All told, RGA ran 8 TV ads and sent 8 pieces of mail for absentee, early voting, and GOTV, totaling 2.9 million pieces."

The Center for Media and Democracy reported on some of the RGA's spin-filled ads last November, including the ads against Barrett, and filed a snapshot report this week. As the RGA takes credit, its multi-million dollar negative ad campaign probably did help make the difference between the 1.1 million votes cast for Walker against Barrett's 1 million votes. According to Open Secrets, Koch Industries was one of the top ten donors to the RGA in 2010, giving $1,050,450 to help with governors' races, like Walker's.

As Mother Jones has noted, the Koch Industries' political action committee, KochPAC, gave Walker's campaign $43,000 directly (according to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board). It may seem like a small amount compared with the millions the Kochs are spending funding the RGA and other groups, but that donation was one of the larger individual donations to Walker not from an expressly-named partisan PAC. It is, however, a drop in the bucket compared with the impact of a million-dollar negative ad campaign, especially because the candidate promoted by the mud-slingers does not have to get his hands dirty.

The Kochs' Investment in Americans for Prosperity

The laundering of Koch dollars through the RGA dwarfs the Kochs' direct donations to Walker, and it also does not tell the whole story. As the Center for Media and Democracy has been documenting on its SourceWatch site for several years, David Koch was the founder and chairman of a front group called Citizens for a Sound Economy, which received at least $12 million from the Koch Family Foundations and which is the predecessor of the group Americans for Prosperity.

As Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker, the Kochs do not deny funding Americans for Prosperity (the amount is not disclosed) but assert that they provide no funding "specifically to support the tea parties." "Specifically" is the key word in that sentence that does not deny what is known in the non-profit world as "general support," meaning general funding or endowments, for an organization's operations and overall mission. As Mayer noted, Peggy Venable -- who helps the Americans for Prosperity Foundation train Tea Party activists and "target elected officials" -- "said of the Kochs, 'They're certainly our people. David's the chairman of our board. I've certainly met with them, and I'm very appreciative of what they do.'"

Americans for Prosperity provided “Tea Party Talking Points” as the Tea Party was launched around tax day in 2009, and this weekend it is providing talking points to those coming to Madison for a pro-Walker protest it is helping to stage. Media watchers can expect to hear Americans for Prosperity protesters get equal time on the news, and more than equal time on FOX, using phrases to cloak union-busting as merely getting workers to accept "paying a fair share" through "modest but critical reforms" that end "strong-arming politicians for exorbitant benefits." The spin will also likely include a trumped up statistic claiming that private sector employees in Wisconsin earn 74 cents for every dollar paid to "overpaid" state union members--you know, teachers, firefighters, police, social workers, nurses, and other civil servants. An "unofficial" theme, a drumbeat of the Bircher baby propaganda efforts bankrolled by the Kochs, is calling opponents "socialists," a smear heard with increasing frequency as the Kochs' influence has expanded in the past two years.

Americans for Prosperity's Investment in Scott Walker

Notably, Americans for Prosperity bragged that it was going to spend nearly $50 million across the country in the November elections. As one of the groups exploiting the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision to allow unlimited spending by corporations to influence election outcomes, it does not disclose its donors and it does not report its expenditures on so-called "issue ads." It did run such ads in Wisconsin last fall.

Americans for Prosperity has actively supported and promoted Scott Walker in a variety of ways. It featured him at its tea party rally in Wisconsin in September 2009, when he was running for the Republican nomination for governor. Americans for Prosperity also ran millions of dollars in ads on a "spending crisis" (a crisis it did not run ads against when Republicans were spending the multi-billion dollar budget surplus into a multi-trillion dollar deficit), and it selected Wisconsin as one of the states for those ads in the months before the election. It also funded a "spending revolt" tour in Wisconsin last fall through its state "chapter."

Just how much money has Americans for Prosperity and its Wisconsin counterpart spent on issue ads or promoting Walker over the past two years is one of the questions for this weekend's orchestrated "Stand with Walker" event.

The Return on Investment?

Some things are known, though. Koch money helped get Scott Walker the governor's seat in Wisconsin. And now a major Koch-related group is spearheading the defense of Walker's radical plan to kill public employees' right to organize in Wisconsin. The question is whether an actual majority of Wisconsin citizens want two of the richest men in the world, who do not live here -- and who, as Lee Fang has pointed out, have eliminated jobs in this state -- to be playing such an influential role in the rights of working people here.

The Kochs assert that they do not "direct" the activities of Americans for Prosperity or the Tea Party. No, they just fuel them with their riches from the oil business they inherited from their daddy.

And they did not vote for Scott Walker in the traditional sense in a democracy. Rather, as the Republican Governors Association spells out, they "invested" in him.

What is the return desired for their investment? It looks like the first dividend Walker wants to pay, through the help of the Koch-subsidized cheerleaders from Americans for Prosperity, is a death knell for unions and the rights of workers to organize. But tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens have stood up this week to say this ROI will not be paid, that their rights will not be the price Walker exacts from them in return for the largess the Kochs have shown him as the anointed instrument of their agenda in this state.