Sunday, July 31, 2011

Congressional Republicans Hack Away at Medicaid While the Rich Hollow It Out From the Inside

Congressional Republicans Hack Away at Medicaid While the Rich Hollow It Out From the Inside

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Republican assaults on social service programs have finally yielded some significant advances, with the Obama administration offering to push the eligibility age for Medicare up from age 65 to 67. Also, as part of a bargain to raise the debt ceiling, the administration has offered to dial down cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits.

But it's Medicaid, which, as the health provider of last resort for the most vulnerable segment of society, has long been a tempting target for Republicans.

To remind the young, to whom Medicaid and Medicare tend to blend together, the former is a program jointly funded by the state and federal governments that pays for medical care for those who can't afford it.

In March, Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan helped devise a plan to cut Medicaid by one-third over ten years. Also, Republicans sought to turn Medicaid into a block grant, which is a fixed amount with few strings attached for states, as opposed to an adjustable amount should certain contingencies arise. But Republicans soon realized that Ryan was coming perilously close to that social services third rail that has come to haunt many a Republican in elections past. They then, instead, introduced the State Flexibility Act to pave the way for states to accept fewer applicants to Medicaid.

Ironically, Medicaid is under assault at a time when a new paper - which a RAND Corporation economist said is destined to be a "classic" - demonstrates just how much enrollment in Medicaid enhances the well-being of the poor. A few years ago, Oregon experienced a shortfall in Medicaid funding, which the state managed by conducting a lottery among applicants. However out of luck the losers were, it was an ideal situation for a double-blind experiment to determine the effect on the lives of those on Medicaid as opposed to those who weren't, but who were equally needy.

Among the results as cited by Gina Kolata of The New York Times: once on Medicaid, the likelihood of enrollees who "said their health was good or excellent increased by 25 percent [and] were 40 percent less likely to borrow money or fail to pay other bills because they had to pay medical bills."

Whether or not this study will have any effect is debatable. At a time when funding for everything is up for debate - even defense and nuclear weapons (even if the cuts are token) - it appears that Republicans will never let up in their relentless crusade to roll back social service programs, in particular, Medicaid, the lowest-hanging fruit of all social services.

Like all social service programs, in the opinion of many Republicans, it just enables those on the underside of society to continue their slothful ways. Never mind that, in the case of Medicaid, we're speaking typically of the aged and disabled - hey, if those in succeeding generations see that we're not coddling today's disadvantaged, maybe they'll eat better, exercise and save their money.

Nature Abhors a Vacuum - Doesn't It?

If Medicaid is stripped down in the future, what program will replace it to take care of the sick and poor denied access? Remember, Medicaid pays for an average of 63.6 percent of all nursing home residents nationally. Somehow, letting them die at home and then holding monthly bring-out-your-dead days seems less than ideal. In fact, it's true that, in yet another form of privatization, some states contract out Medicaid to a managed care network run by private insurance firm.

How's that working out? At the Century Foundation's blog Health Beat, which she edits, health care journalist Maggie Mahar quotes a Commonwealth Fund brief: "plans operated by publicly traded companies will enroll the majority of the expanded Medicaid population" after the Affordable Care Act goes into effect in 2013." But Mahar herself writes that "it's not clear that managed care in its current incarnation will save money for states. In Connecticut, for example, Gov. Dan Malloy decided earlier this year to drop managed care contracts it had with Aetna, United Health and a non-profit community health network." According to an audit, Connecticut overpaid by at least $50 million a year.

The Commonwealth Fund brief also reported that those plans "paid out the lowest percentage of their Medicaid premium revenues in medical expenses and reported the highest percentage in administrative expenses." Where have we heard that before? Oh, right, health insurance companies versus the public option. The brief also informs us that those "plans also received lower scores for ... preventive care, treatment of chronic conditions, members' access to care and customer service."

Not only is managed care a poor substitute, but it does not replace Medicaid. It's not comparable to private health insurance, with which the Republicans would like to replace Medicare. Nor does it parallel personal savings accounts, with which they'd like to replace Social Security. In other words, if funds dry up for Medicaid, they dwindle, as well, for managed care, which is just outsourced Medicaid.

Still, conservatives don't like to think of themselves as heartless. But before we explain one of the reasons that they don't seek to replace Medicaid, you'd better sit down. Here goes: one reason Republicans are unconcerned about replacing Medicaid is that some believe that most individuals on Medicaid could, in reality, afford private health insurance. Yes, you heard that right.

Pity the Poor Health Care Companies

In May of 2010, Michael Cannon, director of Health Policy Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote, "Economists of all political stripes acknowledge that Medicaid crowds out private health insurance, which provides better access to medical care."

Jonathan Gruber, who teaches health economics at MIT and has consulted with the Obama administration, coined the use of the term "crowd-out" in this context. "The notion that public insurance expansions simply erode private insurance coverage," he wrote, "rather than providing coverage to those otherwise uninsured, is known as 'crowd-out'." By which he seems to mean that some who apply for Medicaid were covered by private health care insurance, which, presumably they had been able to afford.

Aw, poor health care companies. Cannon wrote that Gruber (emphasis added) "has estimated that, in effect, as many as six out of every ten enrollees added to Medicaid and similar programs would otherwise have had private coverage." Upon writing to Professor Gruber, he responded that he stood by those numbers. Not only that, but, writes Cannon, "Gruber's MIT colleague Amy Finkelstein finds that Medicaid also crowds out private long-term care insurance."

Never mind that the term "crowd-out," by all rights, should refer to those crowded out of health care by high premiums. Who are these people who are choosing Medicaid over private health care or long-care insurance? Or, more to the point, managing to qualify for a means-tested program like Medicaid when, in fact, they can afford private insurance.

President Obama elides the existence of crowd-out when he implies that every single senior receiving Medicaid's nursing home benefits "wouldn't be able to afford nursing home care without Medicaid." That's simply not true. An entire cottage industry of elder-law attorneys has emerged to help seniors qualify for Medicaid without spending down their wealth.

Artificial Impoverishment

In an email, Mahar explained:

... this 2011 essay on Medicaid and the Future of Long Term Care points out: "assets may be unlimited as long as they are held in exempt form, such as a business, home, automobile, term life insurance, prepaid burials, etc. Medicaid's income and asset eligibility rules are easily stretched ... Medicaid estate planning attorneys.... who routinely make six-figure incomes and seven-figure firm revenues.... are in the business of doing just that. By means of creative legal strategies, they artificially impoverish ... even affluent clients to qualify them for Medicaid's LTC benefits....

In the process, though, these attorneys are "diverting Medicaid's scarce resources from people truly in need to their often-affluent clients.... I would add that this is why Medicaid doesn't have enough money to provide good care for the truly needy.... This practice has had devastating consequences for the program.

Finally, an issue on which conservatives and progressives would seem to be able to achieve bipartisan consensus. Republicans have no wish to see Medicaid's equivalent of welfare queens gaming the system, while progressives don't want precious funds diverted from those who most need them. Not only that, assuming Medicaid continues, Republicans have been kind enough to devise an idea to "strengthen" Medicaid - cost sharing.

Who exactly would share the costs? Why, the elderly and disabled will be asked to pony up. Maybe not a problem for affluent abusers of Medicaid, but if the poor had any money to share the costs of Medicaid with the state and federal government, they obviously wouldn't apply for Medicaid in the first place. But their families might. Imagine the financial stress that making up a shortfall in Medicaid would inflict on working- and middle-class families. If both members of a couple were working, it might require the entire salary of one. Or if that's deemed too expensive, the couple might elect to bring mom or dad home as the husband or wife quits his or her job to provide eldercare.

Guess Who Else Might Suffer Blowback From Medicaid Cuts? The Rich

One can make the case that, however despicable the rich are for gaming the system, there's no reason that they, like those less affluent, should be the victim of today's exorbitant health care costs, which are an equal opportunity bankrupter. Mahar, however, reminds us in her email:

... if you think about it, transferring assets to qualify for Medicaid is a way of further consolidating wealth among families at the top of the income ladder. Why should ... a couple earning $60,000 a year who cannot afford to send their child to college ... pay for an upper-middle-class person's nursing home care while [the latter] transfers $100,000 or $500,000 or $1 million, to her upper-middle-class 30-something children (who have joint income of $125,000 - and in ten years, may well be earning twice that amount)?

She also said, "Most Republicans really don't care how or where the cuts are made.... they just want to cut spending on Medicaid." Or, as Paul Krugman told Benjamin Wallace-Wells of New York Magazine, "I think what people like Paul Ryan are trying to do is set us on a glide path to a much harsher society. A country in which, step by step, more and more people are cast out into a situation of not having health insurance and poverty and so we slide back to a Victorian notion that life is full of evils and that's too bad but that's the way that God made the world." O.K., maybe Republicans are heartless.

In practice, however, no one, rich or poor, escapes Medicaid cuts unscathed. As we all know, conservatives excel at developing long-term messaging and electoral strategies. But they seem to have failed to plan for a scenario in which, bereft of Medicaid, their poor relations come a knockin' at their door.

The Republican man of the house might consent to his wife's mother moving in and paying for her care. But, standing by his Republican guns, his instinct might be to cast other relatives out into the wilderness. "We send the wrong message if we help people who failed to plan for their retirement." "You know what you can do with your messaging," his wife replies. "My brother has no money and he'll die without cardiac surgery."

She seems oblivious to the angina pain she's ignited in her husband with this news. After all, both benevolent acts carve huge swaths out of even a rich man's portfolio. Besides when he gives succor to one, there will likely be no end to the mendicants at his door. Watch out what you wish for, in other words.

Trying to thwart Republicans from cutting social services is certainly a never-ending story. Preventing the affluent from hollowing it out from the inside, though, might not be as daunting a task. Mahar said that "rather than lower thresholds for eligibility, or paying doctors less, I think the government should crack down on people who are transferring assets so that others pay for their long-term care. Perhaps the 'look-back' period should be 10 years or fifteen years. (In other words, the state looks back to see what assets you transferred 15 years before applying for Medicaid.) Under Germany's socialized long-term care system, the look-back period is 10 years."

It's ironic that when conservatives and libertarians, such as those at the Institutes CATO and Heritage, try to attack Medicaid by going after those gaming the program, they're inadvertently taking a position adversarial to the affluent, also often Republican. Nevertheless, in the end, Medicaid finds itself under assault from two directions: Congressional Republicans attempt to slash funding, while the affluent core it out from the inside.

Politicians rob workers, protect the wealthy

Politicians rob workers, protect the wealthy

Whether or not a deal is reached in Washington on how to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a government default, the workers and the oppressed have no independent voice in the debate. The process gives them no choice but to accept the result of venomous political warfare in the capitalist establishment.

Several factors have made the political warfare between the big business parties over raising the government debt ceiling especially turbulent. First, there is the upcoming 2012 presidential election and the struggle over control of the federal government and its $4 trillion budget.

Aggravating this warfare is the emergence of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, which has pushed the politics of the negotiations further and further to the right.

Finally, the struggle takes place against the background of the capitalist economic crisis.

The underlying problem of the deficit is the massive government emergency spending of trillions of dollars for bank and corporate bailouts that were meant to stave off a world capitalist crisis. In the short run, however, the debt-ceiling crisis is politically driven by the ultra-right.

The struggle began with the Republicans refusing to agree to raise the debt ceiling unless the Obama administration agreed to cut the federal deficit by cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social spending that benefits the broad masses. The Obama administration agreed to massive cuts in entitlements, but not enough to satisfy the right.

The Republicans also want to block any increase in tax payments by the rich. Obama wants them to pay a small part of the bill.

In this struggle over the terms of raising the debt ceiling, the workers are supposed to choose one of the different options posed by factions of the big business parties.

Debt ceiling fight is over how to protect the rich

The fury over raising the government’s debt ceiling is, at bottom, a fight over two things: 1) how to ensure continued government payments of billions of dollars to rich, coupon-clipping bondholders; and 2) how many trillions of dollars can be taken from the entitlements due the workers and the oppressed in the form of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other benefits.

The crisis atmosphere generated by every organ of big business propaganda — network television, cable TV, newspapers, magazines, bloggers, etc. — is a reflection of the anxiety of bankers, bondholders, insurance companies, hedge funds and other investors over the possibility of default and all its implications.

Over and over again one hears the demand for an agreement that will raise the debt ceiling, avoid default and maintain the “full faith and credit of the U.S. government.” This means, in practice, maintaining the certainty that bondholders will not miss a payment of principal or interest on their investment in U.S. government bonds.

This is the future “crisis” that the White House, the congressional leadership of the big business parties, and all the pundits of the bourgeoisie — regardless of their opinion about what to do — say must be avoided.

But there already is a crisis — a crisis of the working class. It has been going on for four years. It not only has to be avoided; it has to be reversed.

The real crisis: jobs, housing, health care, hunger

The workers and the oppressed must break free from these arguments tailored to the interests of the capitalist rich. From a working-class point of view, the debt-ceiling crisis should not be about paying the rich and cutting entitlements.

What about raising the debt ceiling to create a massive jobs program to achieve full employment? If the government is going to borrow more money, let it put the 30 million unemployed or underemployed workers back to work. Better yet, don’t raise the debt ceiling and instead create jobs with the funds that otherwise would go to the banks and bondholders.

Why should our class, the working class and the exploited, worry about a millionaire or billionaire missing an interest payment when 50 million people in this country are missing meals? Why should workers be concerned that some millionaires will not be able to pay the overhead on their mansions when millions are already homeless and millions more are threatened with foreclosure?

In fact, justice demands that the profits of the bankers and other financiers be used to aid the 47 million people who are on food stamps. It should be used to give health care to the 50 million people who have none because medical care has been turned over to the profit-seeking insurance companies and pharmaceutical monopolies.

The Tea Party & the crisis

A question must be answered in the present crisis. How is it that the mainstream Wall Street financiers and the political establishment have been demanding a solution to this problem for several weeks now, yet things have come so close to the brink of default? Already the prospect of downgrading the credit rating of the U.S. government is on the agenda, regardless of whether or not there is a default.

One answer is that the Republicans will turn heaven and earth to sabotage the Obama administration in order to win the White House in 2012. But, ironically, default threatens the very bankers and bondholders who call the tune in the Republican Party.

House speaker John Boehner was responding to Wall Street when he entered into secret negotiations with President Barack Obama last week to strike a “grand bargain.” Wall Street had been satisfied up until then to use the struggle as a battering ram against Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other spending programs. But as the Aug. 2 deadline approached, finance capital was getting anxious for a settlement.

Key elements agreed upon by Obama and Boehner included $250 billion in cuts to Medicare and a slow increase in the eligibility age from 65 to 67. Obama agreed to $110 billion in cuts to Medicaid and other health care programs, while Boehner wanted $150 billion. Other domestic programs were to be cut between $200 billion and $214 billion. Adjustments were to be made to the Social Security formula for cost-of-living adjustments, which would lower payments.

As the two sides were coming closer together, word of the negotiations leaked out, and Boehner was forced to walk out of the negotiations and denounce them. From then on his position shifted further and further to the right, toward intransigence. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party also revolted — against the cuts — but Obama stuck by his bargain with Boehner.

To understand the collapse of the talks, it is important to remember that, of the 290 Republicans in the House, at least 141 are endorsed by the Tea Party Express or Freedom Works, a pro-Tea-Party-wing organization, or are part of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus.

These forces have been derided in the capitalist media as “childish” and “crazies.” But these characterizations conceal an important political point about U.S. capitalist politics.

These forces emerged in 2008 in the struggle against a Town Hall meeting held on the health care issue. A phony “grass-roots” movement, dubbed the “Astroturf” movement, was organized and funded by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers, the Bradley Foundation, the Olin Foundation and others who are at war with the political establishment in both parties and with the main stream, Wall Street section of the ruling class.

These are the forces that spit on Black Representative John Lewis and gay Congress members on the steps of the Capitol building during the 2008 election campaign. They also showed up with guns at Town Hall meetings that were called to defend health care reform. These are the forces that confronted a conservative Republican, Arlen Specter, at a Town Hall meeting in Pennsylvania and shouted him down. They eventually drove him out of bourgeois politics, even though he was a reactionary member of the establishment.

The Tea Party forces are funded by these billionaires with campaign ads, organization and staff, and were propelled into office in the 2010 elections by the ultra-right-wing of the ruling class. The Koch brothers are paying the bills for Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin to break the public sector unions. The Tea Party ideologues reflect the ideology of their benefactors. To this extreme right, which is outside the political establishment, default is not a danger.

When Martin Bashir of MSNBC interviewed Judson Phillips, founder of the Tea Party Nation, on July 25, Phillips blurted out the Tea Party strategy on default. He said it was not a first choice. That by Aug. 2 the federal government could avoid default by paying its debt service to the bankers and bondholders but stop “wasteful” spending on entitlements.

In other words, by pushing the stalemate to the end, one strategy of the ultra-right Tea Party billionaires is to force the government to choose between default and paying Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other benefits.

While this is a doubtful scenario, nevertheless it reveals what is on the minds of the ultra-right. And this is why the politics of the ruling-class parties are working at cross purposes to the broader interests of the ruling class as a whole. Dismissing Tea Party members as “crazies” in this debate is to conceal their role as a cat’s-paw of the ultra-right-wing of the ruling class. Whatever their clinical condition, they are a direct expression of ruling-class forces. And that is what is important to the working class.

The global economic crisis

Finally, whatever the outcome of this struggle, it will not eradicate the underlying crisis of the capitalist system. Representing the European ruling classes, Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France together with the other eurozone countries have just come to an agreement to bail out the Greek ruling class and also establish a superfund to bail out future governments and banks that are in danger of default in Europe.

This codifies a perspective of long-term crisis dictated by slow growth or actual decline in many of the capitalist countries there — including now Italy and Spain, the third- and fourth-largest economies in the eurozone.

In the U.S. the projections for growth are being marked down by the “experts.” Unemployment is rising. Layoffs are rising. State and local governments are shrinking and so are education and social services. The bond-rating agencies have said that up to 7,000 municipalities may have their credit ratings downgraded, meaning they will have to pay more interest to banks and investors.

The real default is capitalism’s default to society as a whole. It is destroying the environment, undermining the health and wellbeing of the entire population, promulgating racism, sexism and anti-lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer oppression and anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim division. It is spreading war, intervention and occupation around the globe at the cost of trillions of dollars.

The time has come to open up a struggle to fight back against a system that puts the profits of millionaires and billionaires above everything — as can be seen in the present debt-ceiling battle. An anti-capitalist struggle must be put on the agenda of the workers and the oppressed as the only way out of the present crisis.

15 Years in Prison For Taping the Cops? How Eavesdropping Laws Are Taking Away Our Best Defense Against Police Brutality

15 Years in Prison For Taping the Cops? How Eavesdropping Laws Are Taking Away Our Best Defense Against Police Brutality

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Over Memorial Day weekend this past May, residents of Miami Beach witnessed a horrific display of police brutality as 12 cops sprayed Raymond Herisse's car with 100 bullets, killing him. The shooting provoked outrage in the surrounding community, not only because of the murder, but because of what the police did afterward.

Officers on the scene confiscated and smashed witnesses' cell phones; later, when they were confronted by the media, the police denied trying to destroy videos of the incident.

But 35-year-old Narces Benoit removed his HTC EVO’s SIM card and hid it in his mouth. He later sold the video to CNN, placing the police in the awkward position of explaining why they lied about allegations of cell phone destruction. More importantly, the video showed at least two officers pointing guns at Benoit, demanding that he stop filming.

Police brutality takes many forms around the country on a regular basis, particularly in poor and minority neighborhoods. Sometimes, the only method of accountability is a victim’s word (if they are still alive) against that of an officer. Unsurprisingly, the police officer’s version of the story is often adequate for a judge to dismiss allegations of wrongdoing, unless there is hard evidence of misconduct, such as a video or audio recording, which can be useful to unravel conflicting versions of police-citizen encounters.

Due to advancements in technology, the average citizen carries a digital camera in his or her pocket or purse, creating a potential army of amateur videographers on every street corner. A quick YouTube search of "police brutality" lists endless videos, often cell phone footage, of what appear to be police acting with unnecessary and violent force. Some of those videos have served a crucial role in bringing charges against brutality that may have gone unaddressed had it not been for bystanders recording.

One would think the fear of videographers on every block would be a powerful deterrent to police misconduct. However, legislatures are not taking this newfound power against police abuse lightly. In at least three states, it is illegal to record any on-duty police officer, even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists. The legal justification is usually based on the warped interpretation of existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited.

Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland are among the 12 states where all parties must consent for a recording to be legal. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested and charged with a felony. Most all-party consent states (except Illinois and Massachusetts) include a "privacy provision" that says a violation occurs only when the offended party has a reasonable expectation that the conversation is private. This is meant to protect TV news crews and people who record public meetings — where it is obvious to all that recording is underway — from accidentally committing a felony.

Massachusetts and Illinois are the only states that do not recognize an expectation-to-privacy provision to their all-party consent laws. While courts in Massachusetts have generally held that secretly recording police is illegal, recording them openly is not. Illinois, on the other hand, is the only state where the legislature specifically amended the state's wiretapping law to make it illegal to record on-duty police officers without their consent, even in public.

Cases Keep Piling Up

Recording on-duty police officers has gained momentum in states around the country for some time now. But it's only in the last few years, after several high-profile incidents, that the topic has begun to generate nationwide headlines and debate.

Two of these incidents occurred in Maryland last year, just weeks apart.

One involved Jack McKenna, who was arrested by Prince George's county police last March and charged with assault and resisting arrest when he was out celebrating the University of Maryland basketball victory over Duke. Fortunately for him, his fellow Terps fans happened to record the encounter on their cell phones, showing riot police throwing McKenna against a wall and beating him with batons. Once the videos appeared on the Internet, Prince George's County suspended the officers and dropped the charges against McKenna.

The second incident took place last April, when Maryland State Trooper David Uhler pulled over Anthony Graber for speeding and reckless driving. Graber had swerved across several lanes and did at least one wheelie on his motorcycle while driving 80mph. Graber had a video camera mounted to his motorcycle helmet that was recording at the time of the stop, and captured footage of Uhler, dressed in plainclothes while yelling with his gun in hand.

Although Graber was only given a traffic ticket, he posted the video on YouTube to publicize Uhler's threatening behavior. Maryland State police responded by raiding Graber's home, confiscating his computer and charging him with two felonies. One was for violating Maryland's wiretapping law by recording a trooper without his consent, and the other was for "possession of an intercept device," a provision intended for bugs and wiretaps but in this case referred to Graber's video camera. As a result, Graber faced up to 16 years in prison for recording a police officer during a public traffic stop.

Graber's case was ultimately dismissed, as are almost all of these cases, on the grounds that on-duty cops have no such expectation of privacy, which is in accordance with every court in the country that has considered the issue. Because there is no legal justification, the charges are usually dropped or never filed at all. But that doesn't stop the arrests. Radley Balko points out that, more often than not, police arrest photographers for obstructing law enforcement even in states that have no wiretapping law:

“In addition to arresting citizens with cameras for wiretapping, police can use vaguer catch-all charges, such as interfering with a police officer, refusing to obey a lawful order, or obstructing an arrest or police action. Such arrests are far more common. Even more frequent are incidents where police don’t make arrests but illegally confiscate cameras, delete photos and videos, or incorrectly warn camera-wielding citizens that they aren’t allowed to film.”

One such encounter took place earlier this year, when a California man, who recorded a police officer arresting someone at gunpoint down the street, found himself handcuffed as well. Lonell Duchine was videotaping the arrest on his cell phone from inside his garage, when an officer pulled up to his home and demanded the phone for evidence. Duchine refused, so the police officer arrested him, citing “police interference” for withholding evidence.

While illegal confiscation happens in a range of scenarios, from traffic stops to people's homes, the most famous example was on New Year’s day 2009, when Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Officer Johannes Mehserle shot 21-year-old Oscar Grant at point-blank range, as he lay face down in an Oakland subway station, allegedly resisting arrest. The incident captured the nation's attention not simply because an unarmed black man was publicly killed by a white police officer, but also because dozens of onlookers captured it on their cell phones for the world to see.

In California, police are not permitted to confiscate a phone unless the phone was used in a crime. Nonetheless, after the incident BART police attempted to confiscate the phones of subway riders, and even chased one camera-wielder onto a subway car. Had a bystander not been equipped with his cell phone, charges may not have been brought against Mehserle, demonstrating the crucial role video recording can play in accountability. Since then there have been multiple incidents of police brutality recorded by cell phones, which may have otherwise gone unaddressed.

The most pernicious prosecutions to date have taken place in Illinois, where the sentence for recording a police officer is considered a class 1 felony — on par with a rape charge — and can land a person behind bars for more than a decade.

Tiawonda Moore from Chicago, Illinois, faces up to 15 years in prison for using her Blackberry to record two Internal Affairs investigators who spoke to her inside police headquarters. She was there last August to file a sexual harassment complaint against another officer, who she alleges had fondled her and left his personal telephone number when he was at her home investigating a domestic dispute. She says the police department actively discouraged her from filing a report, so out of frustration, she began to record the conversations on her phone. Although the case initially received national media coverage, attention has since died down as 21-year-old Moore awaits a trial date that continues to be pushed back.

Michael Allison is another Illinois resident facing the wrath of the eavesdropping law. The 41-year-old mechanic from Bridgeport faces four counts of violating the eavesdropping law, which adds up to a possible 75-year sentence. Allison believed the local police were harassing him in retaliation for a lawsuit he'd filed against the city over a local zoning ordinance, so he began to record his conversations with them.

Allison was eventually charged with violating the zoning ordinance. When he was told there would be no record of his trial, he informed court officials that he would record his trial with a digital recorder. This prompted the judge to have him arrested on the day of his trial, for violating her right to privacy. After confiscating Allison's digital recorder, the police found the recordings between Allison and the cops.

Christopher Drew, a 60-year-old artist and teacher, is also being prosecuted for violating the eavesdropping law. Drew was arrested in December 2009 for selling art without a permit on the streets of Chicago. He recorded his arrest, and now faces four to 15 years for documenting the incident.

These are just a handful of cases that illustrate the danger that comes with recording police in public. Carlos Miller, a journalist who has been arrested twice for photographing the police, has documented hundreds of similar cases on his blog, Photography is Not a Crime.

What Do the Police Think?

In the most comprehensive article to date about recording the police —" The War on Cameras" — Radley Balko interviewed James Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which describes itself as "the world's largest organization of sworn law enforcement officers." Pasco argues that videotaping police officers in public should be illegal because it can intimidate officers from doing their jobs. Mark Donahue, president of FOP, concurs, telling the New York Times that his organization “absolutely supports” the eavesdropping act and was relieved that the ACLU's challenge filed last year failed, adding that allowing the audio recording of police officers while performing their duty “can affect how an officer does his job on the street.”

Police officers are not a monolith, so while there are many, like Pasco and Donahue, who support these laws, there are also many who doubtless oppose them. At the same time, police apprehension about being videotaped on the job is understandable, especially with the advancement in cell-phone technology increasing at record speed. Some also worry that their actions will be preserved and used against them in ways that weren't possible just a few years ago, while others are simply uncomfortable being videotaped.

However, when considering recent developments in police surveillance, Pasco's argument is rather baffling. In stark contrast to the laws banning citizens from monitoring police misconduct with recording devices, police officers are equipped with top-of-line surveillance cameras in their cars and on their uniforms. According to a recent AP report, hundreds of police departments across the country are equipping officers with tiny body cameras to record anything from a traffic stop to a hot vehicle pursuit to an unfolding violent crime. The mini cameras have even spawned a new cable reality TV series, "Police POV," which uses police video from Cincinnati, Chattanooga and Fort Smith, Ark.

The cameras are intended to provide more transparency and security to officers on the street and to reduce the number of misconduct complaints and potential lawsuits. Which begs the question: what is the difference between these cameras and the footage captured by citizens in public? Why is it acceptable for police officers to record, but not citizens? Aren't the uniform and dashboard cameras, which unlike citizen recordings document police actions all through the day, intimidating police from doing their jobs, just as Pasco suggested?


Pasco goes on to suggest that we have to "put faith and trust in our authority figures," which is the absolute antithesis of a functioning democracy and the US constitution, which rests on transparency and accountability.

As usual, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has taken the lead in challenging these laws. In August of last year, the ACLU of Illinois filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago challenging the Illinois Eavesdropping Act (ACLU v. Anita Alvarez), arguing that the act violates the First Amendment and has been used to thwart people who simply want to monitor police activity, including the ACLU itself. The Illinois law is unique in that it makes it a crime to record not only private but also public conversations made without consent of all parties. In the lawsuit, the ACLU pointed to six Illinois residents who have faced felony charges after being accused of violating the state’s eavesdropping law for recording police making arrests in public venues.

Although the lawsuit was dismissed in January, the ACLU has appealed the suit and expects to begin making oral arguments sometime in the fall. Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney with the Illinois Chapter of the ACLU, explained why the eavesdropping law is unconstitutional:

"The First Amendment protects the right to gather information for the purpose of sharing it with other people and for the purpose of using it to petition government for redress of grievances. And so for a long time courts have protected the right to record by various means what government officials are doing in public, so the press can publish that and so that citizens can use it to petition government.

"When we talk about police officers doing their jobs in public, we’re talking about very important government activity which is often used properly but sometimes is abused, and it’s very important that citizens have the ability to document what police are doing so they can seek improvement in police policy and the like… therefore, the first amendment protects the right to make audio-recordings of on duty police officers who are doing their jobs in public places."

Schwartz went on to compare audio-recording to other forms of documentation that, although less efficient, are not illegal:

"We believe that a police officer who is doing their job in a public place does not have an expectation of privacy. Even the police can see that if they’re arresting somebody on a corner, other people can watch….they don’t dispute that someone can stand a small distance away and watch, or that the person who’s watching can take out a pen and take notes or on what they’re seeing, or that they can take photographs of what they’re seeing or that they can make a silent video recording of what they’re seeing. The addition of the audio is a very powerful way for citizens to ensure that police officers are turning square corners."

Schwartz also emphasized that resolving disputing testimonies with citizen recording, while important, is not the only benefit to overturning the eavesdropping law:

"If police officers are doing their jobs in public places, for example policing a demonstration and something goes awry, it is very valuable for there to be a strong record, including audio of what happened, so that if there is a need to change the rules, the public can go to the government and say "look what happened, change the rules about how police officers are enforcing the peace at a political demonstration."

The court's decision in this case is said to be critically important in setting a precedent that will either protect or endanger newsgatherers‘ constitutional rights to monitor and record police misconduct. Schwartz said the ACLU is "cautiously optimistic" about the eventual ruling, which is expected to be handed down sometime in 2012.

MARC FABER: The Debt Fight Is Meaningless, As Governments March Toward Hyperinflation

MARC FABER: The Debt Fight Is Meaningless, As Governments March Toward Hyperinflation

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>Marc Faber

Marc Faber expects a debt agreement, but nothing that helps in the long run. He tells King World News:

“Yes, I’m sure there will be an agreement, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of excessive debt and of further, very substantial deficits. They’ll iron out something with lots of compromises and with spending cuts that are backloaded, in other words they won’t happen immediately. As we go along say in three or five years' time when these spending cuts should occur and when the tax increases should occur, nothing will happen in my opinion.”

America will keep piling on debt and printing money, as will Europe, leading to war and the collapse of governments:

"Well when the reset comes it will be, say, a hundred dollar bill will be exchanged for a one dollar bill or something like this. Before we have the Great Reset, the government, they will increase the war effort under whatever excuse that will be, but I think that is the likely course of action...The wealth destruction will be interesting because...the people that suffer the most before the reset happens are actually the cash holders."

As for gold:

...I just calculated if we take an average gold price of, say, around $350 in the 1980s and then we compare that to the average monetary base in the 1980s, and to the average US government debt in the 1980s...but if I compare this to the price of gold to these government debts and monetary base, then gold hasn’t gone up at all. It’s gone, actually, against these monetary aggregates, and against debt, it has actually gone down. So I could make the case that probably gold is today very inexpensive....

Hear the full interview at King World News

Taxing The Poor: The Only Tax Increase Republicans Support

Taxing The Poor: The Only Tax Increase Republicans Support

Throughout the debate about raising the federal debt ceiling, Republicans have denied deal after deal because Democrats insist on adding new revenues to trillions of dollars in spending cuts. Republicans have opposed repealing oil and gas subsidies, removing a tax loophole for corporate jet owners, letting the Bush tax cuts expire, and all other forms of revenue Democrats have suggested. Raising taxes in a weak economy, they argue, is unthinkable — even if conservative patriarch Ronald Reagan did just that.

But there is one tax increase some Republicans seem to favor: raising taxes on the working poor, senior citizens, and other low-income Americans.

While they fight the expiration of the budget-busting Bush tax cuts, Republicans have continually cited a report that shows that 51 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes, even admitting that middle- and lower-class Americans need to shoulder a larger burden in deficit reduction efforts. Here is a sample of Republicans who have made that argument:

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT): In a May 5 appearance on MSNBC, Hatch said, “The place where you’ve got to get revenues has to come from the middle class,” saying the poor needed to understand “that there’s a civic duty on the part of every one of us to help this government to, uh, to be better.” On the Senate floor July 7, Hatch said the poor “need to share some of the responsibility” for deficit reduction.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX): Cornyn also cited the report on the Senate floor July 7, when he said Congress needed to address tax reform to make the system “flatter, fairer, and simpler.” He then cited the report, saying, “51 percent — that is — a majority of American households — paid no income tax in 2009. Zero. Zip. Nada.”

Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN): Coats echoed the talking point last weekend, saying “everyone needs to have some skin in the game.” He added: “I realize that some with low incomes and not much money are not paying much in taxes. Nonetheless, we all have a stake in this country and what needs to be done. I think it’s important that this burden not just fall on 50 percent of the people but falls on all of us in some form.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA): Cantor was among the first Republicans to begin hitting this particular talking point, doing so in April on CNBC’s Squawk Box. “We also have a situation in this country where you’re nearing 50 percent of people who don’t even pay income taxes,” he said.

Republicans, of course, ignore why most of the 51 percent do not pay income taxes and the myriad ways in which they are subject to other forms of taxation. The majority who do not pay federal income taxes simply do not make enough money to qualify for even the lowest tax bracket. But they do contribute through payroll, state, and sales taxes. Less than a quarter of Americans don’t contribute to federal tax receipts, and the majority of those are students, the elderly, or the unemployed.

Meanwhile, the richest Americans are paying less than they were a generation ago, leaving the United States with one of the largest income gaps in the industrialized world.

More than 5 million households had their wealth wiped out since 2005

More than 5 million households had their wealth wiped out since 2005

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The typical US household lost 28 percent of its wealth during the economic crisis, with one third of these being totally wiped out, according to a recent analysis of Census Bureau data carried out by the Pew Research Center, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics”.

While the study headlines racial disparities, the most striking findings concern the general impoverishment of all sections of the population. The percent of US households who have a net worth of zero dollars or below—meaning they have more debts than assets—grew from 15 percent in 2005, to 20 percent in 2009. This means that 5.6 million households, or about 15 million people, had their wealth totally wiped out during the first part of the economic downturn. These figures come from an analysis of Census Bureau survey data for 2005 and 2009.

The study found that, after adjusting for inflation, the median wealth of US households fell from $96,894 in 2005 to $70,000 in 2009, a drop of 28 percent. The majority of this is attributable to the precipitous fall in real estate values, by about 30 percent between 2006 and 2009 and even more since.

The fall in home values has been compounded by falling wages. Between 2005 and 2009, workers’ average hourly earnings fell, on an inflation-adjusted basis, by 5 percent, according to the Labor Department.

Indebtedness has grown as rapidly as wealth has fallen. Between 2005 and 2009, unsecured liabilities grew 33 percent for the population as a whole, the study found.

Meanwhile, the share of household wealth held by the wealthiest ten percent of households grew from 49 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2009.

Racial minorities have been particularly hard hit, including by the fall in housing values. The net worth of Hispanic households fell by a staggering 66 percent, from $12,124 in 2005 to $5,677 in 2009. The net worth of black households has likewise tumbled 53 percent. Among Hispanics, unsecured debt grew by 47 percent.

The level of inequality between whites, blacks, and Hispanics is now at the highest level in 25 years, and no doubt longer. The racial differentiation is partly attributable to geography. While whites saw the values of their own homes fall by 18 percent and blacks by 23 percent, the home values of Hispanics fell by more than half.

As the report notes, “In 2005, more than two-in-five of the nation’s Hispanic and Asian households resided in Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada, the five states with the steepest declines in home prices.” For Hispanics living in these states, the report noted, “median net worth tumbled from $51,464 in 2005 to $6,375 in 2009, a loss of 88 percent.”

These racial divergences, however, mask the more fundamental growth of inequality between the working class and the wealthy of all races. The report notes that the wealthiest 10 percent of blacks now controls 67 percent of the wealth for that group, compared to 59 percent before the downturn. For Hispanics, likewise, the wealthiest 10 percent controlled 72 percent of wealth in 2009, up from 59 percent in 2005.

The number of unemployed, meanwhile, grew from 7.9 million to 15.2 million between 2005 and 2009. Rising unemployment, too, has disproportionately affected minorities. Unemployment has affected blacks and hispanics disproportionately, with the unemployment rate for blacks currently at 16.5 percent and 11.6 percent for hispanics.

The staggering fall in wealth has had an transformative effect on American society, contributing to the millions of foreclosures and personal bankruptcies. According to figures from, there were 10 million foreclosures between 2005 and 2009, the years covered by the survey.

3,700 US post offices targeted for closure

3,700 US post offices targeted for closure

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The United States Postal Service (USPS) on Tuesday named 3,700 post offices across the country that could be closed in the near future. The move is the largest downsizing in the agency’s history and potentially threatens the jobs of 4,500 postal clerks, postmasters, station managers and supervisors.

Postal officials say they intend to review half of their network of 32,000 local post offices over the next decade, and aim to save $200 million a year though slashing labor and other operating costs. In a press release, USPS officials blame the move on customers shifting to online sales and cutting back on “snail mail” in favor of electronic communication.

The USPS, an independent agency of the executive branch of the US government since 1971, is expected to lose $8 billion this year for the second year in a row. The agency has received no federal funding since the 1980s, with a few exceptions, and relies solely on money raised through the sale of postage and other products and services.

USPS proposes to expand the agency’s network of “Village Post Offices,” whereby postal business is conducted at local businesses such as pharmacies, grocery and convenience stores. The Postal Service already sells stamps at thousands of retail outlets, such as CVS and Walmart.

The post offices targeted for closure will be evaluated for how much revenue they bring in and how close they are to neighboring post offices. Community meetings will be held to discuss alternatives to closure, including setting up a Village Post Office if a local business can be found to operate one. Area residents will have 60 days to appeal the closures to the Postal Regulatory Commission, but the USPS will not be bound by the commission’s review.

The closure of post offices is a major attack not only on the postal employees who stand to lose their jobs, but the communities they serve. This is particularly true in rural areas, where the local post office often functions as a focus of town life. If local post offices do get replaced by a “Village” site—and there is no guarantee that they will—these new sites would not provide a number of services presently offered by USPS-run offices, such as dispensing passports, money orders, and mailing of odd-sized parcels. Local residents would be forced to drive long distances to obtain the services currently offered by their local post office.

In a bit of historical irony, one of the post offices on the USPS chopping block is Ben Franklin post office in Philadelphia, the location of Franklin’s house. The USPS traces its roots to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, where Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. The Post Office Department was created in 1792 based on Franklin’s design.

The postal service is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the US Constitution, guaranteeing mail delivery to every household in the US at a uniform cost. The postal service has long been a target of politicians of both big-business parties, who would like to see its monopoly on mail delivery thoroughly busted up and handed over to the “free market.” One result of the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 was to open up a portion of postal operations to private companies such as FedEx and UPS.

The current drive to put thousands of local post offices out of operation is based on the premise that the USPS is an inefficient business, is not generating sufficient revenue, and needs to slash costs, particularly for labor. In a press release, current Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe commented in relation to the targeted closures, “The Postal Service of the future will be smaller, leaner and more competitive and it will continue to drive commerce, serve communities and deliver value.”

As originally conceived by Benjamin Franklin and others, the Postal Service was primarily designed to facilitate interstate communication and to provide a vital service to the nation’s citizens. It is required to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality. But as with other services millions of people have come to rely upon as a basic right—such as health care and education—the postal service is eyed as a potential generator of corporate profit.

The USPS employs more than 596,000 workers and has over 218,000 vehicles in its fleet, the largest in the world. If it were a private company, it would be the second-largest employer in the US, behind Walmart.

The Postal Service has reduced its workforce by 130,000 in recent years, slashing billions of dollars in costs. It has maxed out a $15 billion line of credit with the federal government, and is looking to make even deeper cuts through throwing tens of thousands more workers out of their jobs and shutting down more of its operations.

In an effort to rein in costs, USPS officials have submitted a request to Congress to allow a reduction in mail deliveries to five days a week. They have hinted that deliveries could be reduced to as few as three days a week in 15 to 20 years if revenues continue to decline.

Postal officials are also seeking to ease a requirement that the agency pay $5.5 billion annually into a fund to prepay future retiree medical benefits. Postmaster General Donahoe has said that the post office will be unable to make the payment due for retiree health care when its fiscal year ends September 30. Last month the post office also suspended contributions to its employee pension fund, claiming that because the fund has a surplus of $6.9 billion, the suspension of payments should not affect the pensions of retirees.

The American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which represents 220,000 postal workers and retirees, has criticized the proposal to shut down more post offices. But according to the Washington Post, APWU officials suggest as an alternative that Congress allow the Postal Service to loot the retired postal workers’ health fund.

Evil Corporate Tax Holiday Gains Bipartisan Support

Evil Corporate Tax Holiday Gains Bipartisan Support

The madness that is the proposed tax repatriation holiday is continuing and gathering steam. More and more members of congress are coming out of the woodwork, scratching their chins in contemplative consideration as it were, pretending that they’ve just realized what a great day a corporate tax holiday would be – not that they’ve taken gazillions of dollars from the firms lobbying for it or anything.

The latest convert seems to be Nevada Democrat Shelley Berkley. Berkley’s plan is to offer a pseudo-holiday – not the full-fledged happy-ending massage the companies wanted (i.e. a reduction from 35 percent+ to 5.25 percent) but a mere ten-point shave:

Representative Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat, is the latest lawmaker to consider legislation allowing multinational companies to send offshore profits to the U.S. at a reduced tax rate.

Her proposal, which was confirmed yesterday by Berkley’s communications director, David Cherry, would allow companies to return profits to the U.S. at a 25 percent tax rate, 10 percentage points below the maximum statutory rate. Most companies publicly supporting a holiday, such as Duke Energy Corp., have spoken favorably of the 5.25 percent rate that is being offered by Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican.

One thing that people must understand about this tax repatriation business is that it’s a wholly bipartisan affair. It’s not solely the work of evil Republicans. This is a scheme that requires heavies in both parties to help ram the knotty, hard-to-sell legislation through. On the Democratic side, unsurprisingly, the main actor is going to be Chuck Schumer. John Kerry is also involved with this nastiness. Barbara Boxer led the 2004 effort and the failed 2009 campaign to get a holiday, and is rumored to be lurking somewhere in this business.

Note that Cisco, a California corporate heavyweight and one of the companies lobbying most ravenously for this tax holiday, has been a consistent lifelong contributor to Boxer. You’ll find Cicso is also a contributor to most of the other congressional allies in the repatriation holiday effort, as are companies like Motorola, Merck , Pfizer, Proctor and Gamble, Ford, and others.

If you would like to contact Rep. Berkley and tell her how much she would suck if she voted for this thing, here’s the form.

I’m still shocked at the lack of press coverage of this. In all this scratching and clawing over dimes here and there, and clamoring for trillions in cuts, we’re seriously considering what amounts to a gigantic new systematic loophole for corporate taxes?

Again, if they pass this thing one more time, the fiction of the "one-time holiday" disappears forever, and the next decade will see an explosion of exported profits, “transfer pricing,” and cunning use of correspondent banks to stealth-repatriate offshored funds. Everyone will know that the effective corporate tax rate has been dropped from 35 percent to 5 percent – all companies need to do is hide profits overseas and bring them back about once every presidential term or two.

This has the doubly negative effect of lowering revenue during the holiday years and reducing job investment in the intervening years, as private business revenue is kept outside the borders of the U.S. instead of staying here and dumped into the economy. Naturally, since this is the exactly stupidest thing federal lawmakers could consider doing, they are doing it.

War Is a Racket

War Is a Racket

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“War is a racket,” wrote retired U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley D. Butler, in 1935. That statement, which is also the title of his short book on war profiteering, rings true today. One courageous civil servant just won a battle to hold war profiteers accountable. Her name is Bunnatine “Bunny” Greenhouse. She blew the whistle when her employer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, gave a no-bid $7 billion contract to the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) as the invasion of Iraq was about to commence. She was doing her job, trying to ensure a competitive bidding process would save the U.S. government money. For that, she was forced out of her senior position, demoted and harassed.

Just this week, after waging a legal battle for more than half a decade, Bunny Greenhouse won. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers settled with Greenhouse for $970,000, representing full restitution for lost wages, compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees.

Her “offense” was to challenge a no-bid, $7 billion-plus contract to KBR. It was weeks before the expected invasion of Iraq, in 2003, and Bush military planners predicted Saddam Hussein would blow up Iraqi oilfields, as happened with the U.S. invasion in 1991. The project, dubbed “Restore Iraqi Oil,” or RIO, was created so that oilfield fires would be extinguished. KBR was owned then by Halliburton, whose CEO until 2000 was none other than then-Vice President Dick Cheney. KBR was the only company invited to bid.

Bunny Greenhouse told her superiors that the process was illegal. She was overridden. She said the decision to grant the contract to KBR came from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, run by VP Cheney’s close friend, Donald Rumsfeld.

As Bunny Greenhouse told a congressional committee, “I can unequivocally state that the abuse related to contracts awarded to KBR represents the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career.”

The oilfields were not set ablaze. Nevertheless, KBR was allowed to retool its $7 billion no-bid contract, to provide gasoline and other logistical support to the occupation forces. The contract was so-called cost-plus, which means KBR was not on the hook to provide services at a set price. Rather, it could charge its cost, plus a fixed percentage as profit. The more KBR charged, the more profit it made.

As the chief procurement officer, Greenhouse’s signature was required on all contracts valued at more than $10 million. Soon after testifying about the egregious RIO contract, she was demoted, stripped of her top-secret clearance and began receiving the lowest performance ratings. Before blowing the whistle, she had received the highest ratings. Ultimately, she left work, facing an unbearably hostile workplace.

After years of litigation, attorney Michael Kohn, president of the National Whistleblowers Center, brought the case to a settlement. He said: “Bunny Greenhouse risked her job and career when she objected to the gross waste of federal taxpayer dollars and illegal contracting practices at the Army Corps of Engineers. She had the courage to stand alone and challenge powerful special interests. She exposed a corrupt contracting environment where casual and clubby contracting practices were the norm. Her courage led to sweeping legal reforms that will forever halt the gross abuse she had the courage to expose.”

The National Whistleblowers Center’s executive director, Stephen Kohn (brother of Michael Kohn) told me: “Federal employees have a very, very hard time blowing the whistle. So whenever the government is forced to pay full damages for all back pay, all compensatory damages, all attorneys’ fees, that’s a major victory. I hope it’s a turning point. The case was hard-fought. It should never have had to been filed. Bunny did the right thing.”

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone will exceed $5 trillion. With a cost like this, why isn’t war central to the debate over the national debt?

Two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler had it right 75 years ago when he said of war: “It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious [racket]. ... It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives ... It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.”

As President Barack Obama and Congress claim it is Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that are breaking the budget, people should demand that they stop paying for war.

Debt Madness Was Always About Killing Social Security

Debt Madness Was Always About Killing Social Security

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This phony debt crisis has now passed through the looking glass into the realm where madness reigns. What should have been an uneventful moment in which lawmakers make good on the nation’s contractual obligations has instead been seized upon by Republican hypocrites as a moment to settle ideological scores that have nothing to do with the debt.

Hypocrites, because their radical free market ideology, and the resulting total deregulation of the financial markets, is what caused the debt to spiral out of control this last decade. That and the wars George W. Bush launched but didn’t have the integrity to responsibly finance. The consequence was a banking bubble and crash leading to a 50 percent run-up of the debt that has nothing to do with the “entitlements” that those same Republicans have always wanted to destroy.

Even Barack Obama has put cuts in those programs into play, warning ominously that a failure to lift the debt ceiling could cause the government to stop sending out Social Security checks. Why, when the Social Security trust fund is fully funded for the next quarter-century and is owed money by the U.S. Treasury rather than the other way around? Why would we pay foreign creditors before American seniors? The answer, offered as conventional wisdom by leaders of both parties, is that we cannot endanger our credit by failing to back our bonds, even though the Republicans have aroused the alarm of the main U.S. credit rating agencies by their brinkmanship on the debt.

Robert Scheer recently discussed the debt crisis on Truthdig Radio.

What a topsy-turvy world when the same credit rating agencies that gave the thumbs up to the bankers’ toxic mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps now threaten the AAA rating of U.S. Treasury bonds. According to them, it will not be enough to merely lift the debt ceiling—what had been assumed by both Republican and Democratic presidents to be a routine act. In addition to that, as the credit agency Standard & Poor’s has insisted, more than $4 trillion has to be cut from programs that mostly benefit the victims of the banking meltdown. Otherwise the agencies will downgrade the U.S. credit rating, leading to higher interest rates that will destroy what remains of the U.S. housing market, dim the prospect for any improvement in employment and further enrich the Chinese government and other holders of U.S. debt.

President Obama and the Senate Democratic leadership are clearly poised to cave in to those demands in the spirit of “compromise,” Obama’s favorite word, but the Republicans keep upping the ante. The GOP is shameless: Speaker John Boehner has sanctimoniously responded to Obama’s plea for a bargain that gives up almost everything to the right wing by rebuffing the president on the grounds that the Republican Party is the last line of defense against big government.

Boehner dared blame Obama for “the largest spending binge in American history,” which he attributed to the health care reform, most of which has yet to be enacted, and a stimulus program that was an underfunded effort to save American jobs. Not a word from Boehner or the other Republicans about the banking collapse that resulted from their deregulatory policies, the real cause of the inflated debt.

Boehner’s slogan, “I’ve always believed, the bigger government, the smaller the people,” is downright bizarre coming from someone who supported the Bush tax cuts for the rich, the banking bailout and the highest war spending since World War II, all of which is what caused government to get this big. Was it job stimulus spending that kept GM jobs in this country that made people smaller, or the loss of their homes and jobs as a result of the policies that are at the core of the Republican program?

What is at stake is a radical Republican agenda to totally reverse the progress in economic justice that began with the great reforms of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. Consider the direct consequence of the economic crisis that unfettered Wall Street greed has wrought, particularly in reversing the gains made by the most underprivileged sectors of the population. As The Wall Street Journal reported, based on a Pew Research Center study from 2005 to 2009, “The wealth gap between whites and each of the nation’s two largest minorities—Hispanics and blacks—has widened to unprecedented levels amid the housing crisis and the recession. … The disparities are the greatest since the government began tracking such data a quarter-century ago. …”

But there is plenty of suffering to go around as a result of the deep recession. The wealth of whites in that period declined by 16 percent, not to mention the ever-greater chasm between the top 2 percent and everyone else. That’s the same 2 percent whose tax cuts the Republicans are determined to preserve.

The Dollar Is Going Down The Drain Right Now

Dollar Is Going Down The Drain Right Now

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Equities and Treasuries aren't doing anything special, but the dollar, oy!

Going down the drain against the yen.

As for its connection to the debt ceiling fight -- where the GOP revolt against the Boehner plan is ON -- make of it what you will.

USDJPY from FinViz:


The Appalling Hypocrisy Of The Republican Party Exposed In Three Simple Charts

The Appalling Hypocrisy Of The Republican Party Exposed In Three Simple Charts

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And although the Republicans do deserve significant credit for finally focusing the country and Washington on the magnitude of the problem--really--their hypocrisy on this issue is almost unbearable.

As we've reported, and as the three charts below show, the Republicans are every bit as responsible for the country's budget and debt mess as the Democrats (if not more so).

So it's no wonder that the great silent majority of reasonable Americans are disgusted by what's going on in Washington.

Don't believe that the Republicans are just as responsible as the Democrats for our current mess?

Check out the charts below.

First, the explosion in government spending under presidents Bush and Obama, The first 8 years are Bush. The rest are Obama.

Meanwhile, government revenue collapsed, thanks to the Bush tax cuts and recession (the Bush tax cuts--and the recession that started under Bush). The combination of this collapse and Obama's ongoing increase in spending ballooned the deficit:

And in case you still think the Republicans are on firm moral ground in their sudden fiscal tut-tutting, take a look at the breakdown in that spending growth and revenue collapse, from the New York Times (click for larger):

Federal Spending 2000-2011

Image: New York Times

(James Fallows of The Atlantic discusses this chart here.)

When presented with this evidence, of course, Republican cheerleaders will protest that Congress is responsible for spending, not the President. We encourage anyone who actually believes that to send us a record of all the spending bills that President Bush vetoed during his Presidency.

Who's really responsible for our massive budget deficit? Who's really responsible for our explosion in government spending?

The same hypocrites who are now shoving their faces in front of TV cameras and preaching about the need for fiscal responsibility.

To listen to Congressional Republicans tell it, you'd think the US's colossal budget and debt problem was caused by one simple thing: The Democrats.

How Boehner’s Debt Plan Produces ‘The Greatest Increase In Poverty And Hardship’ In American History

How Boehner’s Debt Plan Produces ‘The Greatest Increase In Poverty And Hardship’ In American History

John Boehner’s debt ceiling proposal would add $1 trillion to the current $14.3 trillion debt limit (which would be expected to allow the government to continue borrowing into April of 2012), reduce spending immediately and cap future spending to save $1.2 trillion over 10 years, and establish a 12-member joint committee of Congress charged with reporting back to both chambers by Nov. 23 with recommendations to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.8 trillion over 10 years. The plan also calls for a vote on a constitutional balanced budget amendment before the end of 2011.

It’s a plan that the usually “mild-mannered” Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) is describing as “tantamount to a form of ‘class warfare’” that “if enacted, it could well produce the greatest increase in poverty and hardship produced by any law in modern U.S. history.” Since Boehner’s blueprint contains no tax increases and his first round of cuts targets discretionary spending, the joint committee will have no choice but to achieve its $1.8 trillion in budget reductions by cutting entitlement spending, Greenstein explains:

– As a result, virtually all of that $1.8 trillion would come from entitlement programs. They would have to be cut more than $1.5 trillion in order to produce sufficient interest savings to achieve $1.8 trillion in total savings.

– To secure $1.5 trillion in entitlement savings over the next ten years would require draconian policy changes. Policymakers would essentially have three choices: 1) cut Social Security and Medicare benefits heavily for current retirees, something that all budget plans from both parties (including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan) have ruled out; 2) repeal the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansions while retaining its measures that cut Medicare payments and raise tax revenues, even though Republicans seek to repeal many of those measures as well; or 3) eviscerate the safety net for low-income children, parents, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. There is no other plausible way to get $1.5 trillion in entitlement cuts in the next ten years. [...]

In short, the Boehner plan would force policymakers to choose among cutting the incomes and health benefits of ordinary retirees, repealing the guts of health reform and leaving an estimated 34 million more Americans uninsured, and savaging the safety net for the poor. It would do so even as it shielded all tax breaks, including the many lucrative tax breaks for the wealthiest and most powerful individuals and corporations.

Congressional Quarterly’s Richard E. Cohen also reports that Boehner’s powerful panel has “no precise parallel” and will have to overcome severe logistical hurdles. “The panel would then be required to complete its work before Thanksgiving — a period of less than four months that includes the monthlong congressional August recess, two additional weeks of scheduled House breaks and three other weeks when the Senate is slated to be gone.”

It would also “have to work with existing House and Senate committees with longstanding jurisdictional claims on the issues in play and build majority support in both chambers of a divided Congress. The GOP has already cautioned that it “will not appoint any members who will approve tax hikes,” a selection criterion that “Reid and Pelosi would most certainly not follow.” The committee’s recommendations would then face up-or-down floor votes in the House and Senate without additional amendments.

Bernie Sanders: GOP Doing "Everything They Can to Protect the Wealthiest People" in America

Bernie Sanders: GOP Doing "Everything They Can to Protect the Wealthiest People" in America

You can always count on Bernie Sanders to tell it like it is. Following the President's address on the debt ceiling, the Vermont Senator appeared on the Ed Show to discuss what is exactly going down in Congress right now, and why Boehner is leading a bullheaded impasse that may very well force the country into default. After a clearly annoyed Obama called the GOP "reckless" and basically spanked them on live television (spanking, because they're acting like babies), Sanders was, too, irritated at the Republicans. After Shultz pointed out that Harry Reid's debt plan cuts more from the budget than Boehner's, noting that the "real Republican two-step is to kill the New Deal and defeat President Obama" (ugh), Sanders laid it on the line. "I think the plan of the Republicans is clear," he said. "They want to do everything they can to protect the wealthiest people in the country... They want to protect corporate America... They want to decimate Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid." Scary stuff, but oh so true. Watch below, via Raw Story:

Wisconsin DMV Tells Boy His Bank Account Doesn’t Show Enough “Activity” To Get a Voter ID

Wisconsin DMV Tells Boy His Bank Account Doesn’t Show Enough “Activity” To Get a Voter ID

A video has surfaced of a boy trying to get one of the new Wisconsin Voter IDs that were ushered in by the signing of new a voting law in the state. Shot by the boy's mother with the clear intention of indicting the process, the video shows the pair going from station to station at the DMV, asking all of the right questions as to why there are so many hurdles to acquiring this constitutionally guaranteed ID card.

It is a shame the video is not edited more briskly -- at almost ten minutes in length its viral spread will certainly be thwarted -- but it nonetheless lends itself to breath-holding drama because of this fact.

The first station clerk determines that the boy's bank account does not display enough "activity" to constitute a proof of address form. This is not only absurd ("does he use it?") but a clear privacy infringement as is the follow up question of whether or not the account is of the "checking" or "savings" variety. "Oh, it's just a savings," the clerk remarks. The mother throws a subtle jab, countering that "he's unemployed."

Good one, mom.

The mother-son hidden camera team manages to satisfy the bank account busting first clerk and eventually makes it to the third clerk where they discover that unless you explicitly specify that you have come to the DMV for a Voter ID, you will be charged $28. The clerk admits that there is no difference between the Voter ID and the non-Voter ID -- they're literally the same physical object -- but that it's the policy of the establishment to leave the honus for making this distinction on the customer: no signs, no warnings, just a box on the form you have to hope you notice and check.

The mother asks for the clerk's superior who is somewhat helpful. She then asks for the superior's superior which we can assume the mother gave hell to when the camera was off.

Watch in awe/disgust below and then read about the closure of DMVs in highly Democratic districts.