Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Missouri prepares to end tax credit for elderly and disabled

Missouri prepares to end tax credit for elderly and disabled

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The Associated Press is reporting that Missouri legislators are about to repeal a $750 state tax credit that has helped over 100,000 disabled and elderly residents who live in rental housing.

According to the AP, "The move could save the state $855 million over 15 years, and some lawmakers want to redirect a portion of that money to new tax breaks intended to lure Chinese cargo planes to the St. Louis airport and more businesses to Missouri."

Although opposed by advocates for the poor and elderly, the repeal is expected to pass in a special session that starts this week. It would be "the single largest budgetary savings being proposed to offset the cost of the new business incentives."

Even a representative of the Missouri AFL-CIO supports the plan, arguing that "while we're not very happy with the elimination of some provisions that help people in need, we've got to get our people to work if we're ever going to have enough money in the state coffers again to support human need issues."

When the Missouri Tax Credit Review Commission originally recommended an end to the tax credit for renters -- though not for homeowners -- the state's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, opposed the recommendation and described the credit as "an important consumer protection."

Now, however, he says he will support the change if an equivalent amount of money is used to create a fund earmarked for senior citizen programs. That idea is being received with cynicism by many Missourians, who believe the fund would simplyend up being used to offset cuts elsewhere.

"When one chicken plucks a feather out of another chicken, all the other chickens do too until there's nothing left of the chicken," one elderly renter told the AP. "And that's just what these lawmakers are doing, they're taking one feather off at a time until the elderly and disabled have nothing. And there's just no need of it, absolutely no need of it."

This Labor Day, America’s Losing Patience with Jobless

This Labor Day, America’s Losing Patience with Jobless

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WASHINGTON — As the nation celebrates U.S. workers this Labor Day weekend, many jobless Americans say they sense a growing indifference to their plight, and even a certain level of demonization.

For years, people who lost their jobs were the sad, sympathetic faces of the nation's economic meltdown. But more than two years after the Great Recession officially ended, America's empathy for the unemployed is showing signs of wear.

Many companies now shun the long-term unemployed when filling positions, fearing their skills have eroded or their talents don't measure up.

America's jobless also face increased hostility from conservative lawmakers, as more states cut the amount and duration of unemployment benefits, while making them harder to get and easier to lose.

In South Carolina, where state-funded jobless benefits were cut from 26 to 20 weeks, Republican state senator Kevin Bryant blogged in April that "Part of the unemployment problem is that our human nature is to take advantage of the ability to get paid to not work. ... I'm very sympathetic to those out of work desperately seeking it, but I'm disappointed that we have a significant segment of our society leeching (off) the system."

Similar comments from a variety of conservatives reflect a sneaking suspicion that 99 weeks of extended benefits have taken the urgency out of job searches.

"Two years is a long time. At some point you've got to provide more incentives to get people to do things," said Frederick Tannery, an associate economics professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.

Similar concerns about long-term welfare recipients fueled a massive overhaul in the mid-1990s that refocused public assistance on getting people into jobs. In fact, many changes that states are making to their unemployment insurance programs were made earlier under welfare restructuring, such as restricting eligibility, cutting benefits and expanding the types of violations that could disqualify recipients from receiving benefits.

Last year, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, even proposed drug tests for people who apply for welfare and jobless benefits.

The notable change in tone begs the question: Has America lost patience with the unemployed? And have extended jobless benefits caused some to view the long-term unemployed as the "welfare queens" of the new millennium?

"There are statements about UI recipients that are similar to statements about 'welfare queens,' and that shows a certain lack of sympathy with the situation of the unemployed," said Wayne Vroman, an economist at the Urban Institute who specializes in unemployment insurance. "Any human endeavor has people who game the system, but to attribute this as a massive kind of rip-off by the unemployed doesn't really match reality."

The reality is that the economy isn't creating jobs fast enough to re-employ the 8 million-plus who lost jobs in the Great Recession of 2007-09.

"People blame the chronically unemployed when, in fact, they're the victim of a much larger economic calamity that's beyond their control," said Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration.

Some critics blame unemployment benefits as incentives for sloth. During his 2010 campaign, Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Corbett told a reporter, "The jobs are there, but if we keep extending unemployment, people are just going to sit there."

Corbett's comments, which he later said weren't meant to be insensitive, still resonate with Ahniva Williams, who counsels jobless people for the nonprofit Unemployment Information Center in Philadelphia.

"It enraged a lot of my members who were actively looking for work, volunteering, going to school, taking classes and going to job fairs," Williams said.

Charlette Pennington, who lives in a women's shelter, attends Williams' weekly job-search class. Unemployed for more than two years, Pennington was insulted by Corbett's comments.

"I'd like for him to visit one of these shelters and hear these women's stories," Pennington said. "He might change his mind."

After losing her job at a home-care agency in 2009, Pennington, 43, exhausted 99 weeks of UI benefits in June. She said she never got "comfortable" receiving unemployment insurance. That's why, during her jobless spell, she earned a hospitality-industry training certificate, worked as an intern at a hotel and volunteers at a community newspaper. She'll soon begin classes to become a nurse through a program that will help her daughters and her move into their own apartment.

"People collecting unemployment aren't lazy," Pennington declared. "We all want full employment, but sometimes it's hard."

Al Antanavage, an unemployed salesman in Alburtis, Pa., knows how hard it can be. Recently, a recruiter told him he'd missed out on a sales job because he'd been jobless for more than 90 days.

"I don't know where they get off thinking that if you're over 90 days unemployed, that you're a liability. That's what pisses me off," said the 53-year-old Antanavage, who was laid off more than a year ago. "We'll give $20 to a guy begging on the street with a cardboard sign and he'll run straight to the liquor store, but we'll bash people because they can't find a job? It's insane."

However, Mary Wilson, the owner of Michel Concrete in Springfield, Ill., said her experience with two long-term unemployed workers was an eye-opener.

Last year, Wilson hired a dispatcher and a truck driver, both unemployed more than six months. The driver quit after several weeks, claiming a number of minor grievances: She couldn't wear shorts on the job, felt unsafe while driving and didn't like her co-workers.

"Her comment was 'it just wasn't worth it to have to come into work when I was dissatisfied.' She would rather not work. She said that," Wilson recalled. The state ultimately cut the woman's unemployment benefits after investigating her case.

Wilson's dispatcher worked only a few days. He wanted to be fired, Wilson said, because he had a lawn-service business that paid him in cash. If he'd received a paycheck from Wilson, he would have lost his unemployment benefits, which he was collecting illegally.

"He kept trying to give me reasons to let him go and I wasn't catching on," Wilson said. "He was working the system."

Roughly 10 percent of jobless benefits go to undeserving recipients such as Wilson's former dispatcher, said James Sherk, senior policy analyst for labor economics at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center. Sherk said conservative efforts to revamp benefit programs were more about cost savings than making a value judgment on the work ethics of recipients.

"It's not that people who get unemployment insurance are bad, lazy bums. That's just silly. It's much more about 'Let's make sure it goes where it should be going and crack down on abusers,' " Sherk said.

Extended unemployment insurance has been the saving grace for millions of people who lost jobs in the recession through no fault of their own. The benefit programs — which are run by the states but financed by federal and state taxes on wages — kept 3.3 million people out of poverty in 2009.

"It's pretty clear at this point that it's good policy to have big UI extensions," said Jesse Rothstein, an associate professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Not everyone agrees with that. Recently Robert Barro, a Harvard economics professor, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the unemployment rate would be 6.8 percent if jobless benefits hadn't been extended to 99 weeks. "We have shifted toward a welfare program that resembles those in many Western European countries," Barro wrote.

Traditionally, states fattened their unemployment insurance funds when the economy was strong in order to pay more benefits when a recession hit. But only 17 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had enough unemployment money to weather the economic downturn when the recession began in December 2007. That's because states had cut employer payroll taxes too much.

That poor planning, coupled with record job losses in the recession, led states to borrow more than $40 billion from the federal government to keep their jobless benefits flowing. To help replenish the depleted funds, employer jobless taxes rose by an average of 34 percent in 41 states last year, mainly because of mandatory hikes. But even those increases weren't enough to bring most state programs back to solvency.

So states that are struggling to pay back their federal loans and avoid costly interest penalties are left with two solutions: raising employer taxes further or reducing benefits.

Many states are opting for the latter, according to the National Employment Law Project, a research and advocacy organization for the unemployed. Only Colorado and Rhode Island raised employer taxes this year, said George Wentworth, the organization's legal counsel.

Lawmakers in states that include Indiana, Georgia, Michigan, Massachusetts and New Jersey gave employers tax breaks, either through direct cuts or by blocking or postponing scheduled increases in their tax rates, according to the National Employment Law Project. Earlier this year, South Carolina lawmakers reversed an employer tax increase after the business community complained.

Meanwhile, many states have quietly abandoned a 52-year tradition of providing state-funded unemployment insurance benefits for at least 26 weeks. Illinois and Arkansas now provide only 25 weeks. South Carolina and Missouri have cut their maximum benefit to 20 weeks, and Michigan will do the same in January. In Florida, jobless benefits will run only 12 to 23 weeks next year, depending on the state's unemployment rate.

Sherk, of the Heritage Foundation, said the benefit cuts were the best way to right the programs' finances without hurting job creation through higher taxes.

"Most states don't want to do anything that's going to harm the economy right now, and raising taxes, specifically taxes on businesses that hire new workers, may not be the optimal economic strategy," Sherk said.

But Vroman, of the Urban Institute, said most U.S. employers paid low state unemployment taxes and that the job-killing impact of higher rates was overstated.

The average cost of labor in the U.S. is about $30 an hour, of which unemployment insurance accounts for about 18 cents, Vroman said. That's less than employers pay for workers' compensation, Social Security Disability Insurance and retirement contributions.

Because of state benefit cuts, the newly unemployed in South Carolina and Missouri qualify for 17 fewer weeks of federal unemployment extensions, which are based in part on the level of state assistance. That means the maximum combined state and federal assistance in both states has fallen from 99 weeks to 77 weeks, as it will in Michigan beginning next year.

Sara Graham of St. Louis, who just lost her job as an environmental manager at an architectural firm, was unaware that she'd get only 20 weeks of state benefits and reduced federal assistance.

"It freaked me out," Graham said. "I just don't know what I'm gonna do. But I know why they did it. They don't have any money."

With a mortgage that's underwater, a car payment and no help expected from family, Graham, who's 35 and single, is doubtful that she can find a suitable job in 20 weeks.

And while she's eligible for federal extensions, it's unclear whether a budget-conscious Congress will fund another round next year.

Graham said it was unfair that lawmakers chose to rely solely on benefit cuts without raising business taxes.

"I don't even know why that's up for debate," she said. "I feel like the people making the decisions don't even understand what's going on with people that have lost their jobs. I just really think they don't get it. This is not a game of Monopoly. There are actual people involved, and their whole lives are completely disrupted."

Still, there's evidence that some people do game the system.

In studies of unemployment recipients in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the 1980s, Tannery of Slippery Rock found that nearly 30 percent either found work or were recalled to their old jobs within a week of their benefits expiring. That suggests many recipients were delaying their job searches until they'd exhausted their benefits.

A recent study by Rothstein of Berkeley found a similar effect, but on a much smaller level. More notable, however, Rothstein found that most people left unemployment benefits because they stopped looking for work, not because they found new jobs or were recalled.

"And that's much less worrisome" from a policy standpoint, Rothstein said. "What would be worrisome is if there were people that could find jobs, but didn't look very hard because they wanted to keep getting UI. And that looks like it's a small part of the effect."

Since When Is It a Crime to Be Poor?

Since When Is It a Crime to Be Poor?

Working class people are no longer just being Nickel and Dimed, they're being prosecuted by lenders, banks, and city officials.
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[1] http://www.tomdispatch.com
[2] http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175428/tomgram%3A_barbara_ehrenreich%2C_on_americans_%28not%29_getting_by_%28again%29/
[3] http://www.tomdispatch.com/
[4] http://www.amazon.com/dp/0312626681/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20
[5] https://app.e2ma.net/app/view:Join/signupId:43308/acctId:25612

Mountaintop Coal Mining Leads to Birth Defects, Respiratory Illness and Other Health Problems

Mountaintop Coal Mining Leads to Birth Defects, Respiratory Illness and Other Health Problems

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When Madison Minton was six months old, her parents noticed that her breathing was frequently labored. Now in second grade, the child is on eight medications for asthma and other pulmonary ailments.

“Madison’s situation is typical,” says Deborah Payne, Energy and Health Coordinator of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. “People in Eastern Kentucky often don’t have the financial capacity to move away so they live with the consequences of being downwind of a coal processing plant. This means that Madison is exposed to high quantities of dust every single day.”

Payne calls coal mining “one piece of the birth defect puzzle” and says that at every stage, coal is problematic, from its extraction, to its processing, transport, and eventual burning. “At each step there are negative health consequences for adults, children, and fetal life,” she continues.

And it’s gotten worse. As mountaintop removal [MTR] has horned-in on underground mining, the health maladies of residents of eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southwest West Virginia—Appalachia—have begun to pile up.

Here’s why. MTR requires the use of explosives to reach coal streams, a process that makes it even more perilous than underground mining. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility [PSR], MTR blasts release selenium, iron, and aluminum into the air. Selenium is particularly hazardous, PSR says, because it accumulates in tissue where it can cause circulatory, kidney, liver, and nerve damage.

But that’s not all: Later, chemically treated liquids are used to wash the coal and, more often than not, this brew ends up in groundwater. Even more frightening, a group called Appalachian Mountain Advocates estimates that when the time comes to turn coal into electricity, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury -- in the form of coal ash -- gets spewed into the oxygen we breathe and the water we drink.

Not surpringly, this hasn’t fazed the coal companies. In fact, by all accounts, MTR has been a boon for them, allowing the removal of two-and-a-half times more coal per hour than traditional underground mining. Already, the rush to extract -- four million tons a year is taken from each coal-rich county -- has cleared nearly 2200 square miles of forests, reduced 470 mountain summits to rubble, buried 2000 miles of streams, and damaged the ecosystems needed by fish and wildlife.

Still, it is the human toll that is causing the lion’s share of brow furrowing. A first-of-its-kind study released in June 1011 -- “The Association Between Mountaintop Mining and Birth Defects Among Live Births in Appalachia, 1996-2003” -- brought six scientists together to analyze more than 1.8 million hospital birth records for the central portion of the region.

Their findings should jolt both advocates of reproductive justice and those who purport to support the right to life. Indeed, the scientists were cautious, recognizing that most birth defects come from a mix of genetic and environmental factors. Nonetheless, in areas where MTR is used, health abnormalities -- including spina bifida, heart, lung, and genital malformations, cleft palate, hydrocephalus, and club feet -- greatly exceeded defects in non-MTR areas: 235 per 10,000 versus 144. The study also found that living in an area with mountaintop removal increases the chance of having a child with a circulatory defect by 181 percent.

Adults, researchers say, also suffer. Numerous health surveys have confirmed that adults living in areas where there is mountaintop removal have significantly more illnesses than others of comparable age -- with high rates of diabetes, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, asthma, liver disease, hypertension, heart problems, and kidney failure. Factor in poverty -- which affects nearly a third of Appalachia’s residents -- and it’s hard not to despair.

Despite these realities, scientists say that they still have a lot to learn about the risks associated with MTR. “We have not yet investigated the health of pregnant women,” says Dr. Michael Hendryx, Director of the West Virginia Rural Health Research Center. “We know that at certain times during pregnancy there is a greater risk of toxins passing through the placenta. That has to be studied. Throughout Appalachia we hear stories about kids developing cancer at early ages, having asthma and other serious respiratory symptoms, getting frequent rashes and skin blisters. We also hear about kids with digestive and dental problems, kids losing their adult teeth while they’re teenagers. If they drink water from a well that water is usually not treated and we suspect that it is tainted by chemicals that come off a mining site and then rot their teeth. Other people have different kinds of air-related problems. In some places people have to wipe a thick layer of coal dust-- it comes from the processing plants--off their furniture every day or two. The health problems vary depending on what people are exposed to -- but they need to be documented and then analyzed.”

That said, some facts are incontrovertible: For one, coal-mining communities experience significantly more birth defects than communities where mining doesn’t occur. Secondly, adults living in MTR districts are, on average, sicker than adults who live elsewhere.

So what to do? Coal is currently responsible for generating almost half of the electricity used in the US, something that is unlikely to change unless viable alternatives are developed. At the same time, the companies that see coal as a cheap and abundant fossil fuel need to be reminded that here is nothing cheap about human health.

When I was a kid my grandmother frequently repeated a phrase that I found ridiculous: “If you have your health, you have everything.” Who would have imagined that, years later, that truism would resonate.

U.S. Awash in Oil and Lies, Report Charges

U.S. Awash in Oil and Lies, Report Charges

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With four times as many oil rigs pumping domestic oil today than eight years ago and declining domestic demand, the United States is awash in oil. In fact, the U.S. exports more oil than it imports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration - and has done so for nearly two decades.

The country's oil industry is primarily interested in who will pay the most on the global marketplace. They call that "energy security" when it suits, but in reality it is "oil company security" through maximising profits, say energy experts like Steve Kretzman of Oil Change International, an NGO that researches the links between oil, gas and coal companies and governments.

The only reason U.S. citizens may be forced to endure a risky, Canadian-owned oil pipeline called Keystone XL is so oil companies with billion-dollar profits can get the dirty oil from Canada's tar sands down to the Gulf of Mexico to export to Europe, Latin America or Asia, according to a new report by Oil Change International released Wednesday.

"Keystone XL will not lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but rather transport Canadian oil to American refineries for export to overseas markets," concludes the report, titled "Exporting Energy Security".

Little of the 700,000 to 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil pumped through the 2,400-kilometre, seven-billion-dollar Keystone XL will end up in U.S. gas tanks because the refineries on the Gulf Coast are all about expanding export markets. One huge refinery operator called Valero has been touting the potential export revenues of tar sands oil to investors, the report found.

Because Keystone XL crosses national borders, President Barack Obama has to issue a permit declaring the pipeline serves the "national interest" in order to be approved.

"The only way Keystone XL could be considered in the national interest is if you equate that with profits for the oil industry," said Kretzman, who wrote the report.

Canada's huge tar sands deposits, located mainly in the far north of the province of Alberta, are the world's second largest oil reserves, but they are landlocked. It's the industry's biggest worry and also Alberta Energy Minister Ron Lieper's biggest concern.

Lieper recently said that without new pipelines "our greatest risk in Alberta is that by 2020 we will be landlocked in bitumen". Bitumen is thick tarry oil from the tar sands that needs lots of high-energy and chemical processing to be useable - one reason it's widely considered the world's dirtiest oil.

The shortest route to the big Asian markets is through the Rocky Mountains to Canada's west coast via the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. However, Canadian native people live on some of the land and are staunchly opposed, so the industry thought it would be easier to put an export pipeline right through the U.S. heartland, said Kretzman.

"The oil industry would have done the Northern Gateway first but gambled that resistance to the pipeline would be far weaker in the mid-west," he told IPS.

They were wrong.

Thousands of people, including landowners and religious leaders, have gone to Washington DC in the past two weeks to tell President Obama to reject Keystone. Nearly 850 people have been arrested for standing on the sidewalk in front of the White House in what protesters call the largest civil disobedience in the history of the U.S. climate movement.

"It's remarkable, a very dignified and moving protest much like the civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s," said Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians, a large environmental NGO.

"This is about the rights of the environment and future generations. It is the blossoming of a new movement," Barlow told IPS from Washington.

Other massive pipelines are being planned, including ones bringing tar sands crude to New England and the Great Lakes, she said. "Keystone is just the beginning. Once these are built they will have to put something in them."

Infrastructure dictates policy, she stressed. Once pipelines, refineries or power plants are built, it is nearly impossible for governments to shut them down.

Last year, scientists writing in the journal Science concluded there is already enough fossil fuel burning capacity to raise global temperatures by 1.5 degrees C by 2060. Any additional power plants, vehicles, or other fossil fuel burning equipment built from 2011 onward puts humanity at ever greater risk of catastrophic climate change.

"We conclude that sources of the most threatening emissions have yet to built," the scientists wrote.

The Obama administration knows this but the powerful oil lobby can use its unlimited funds to attack Democratic officials during the next election cycle if they don't approve the pipeline, says Kretzman.

Changes to U.S. law in 2010 allow corporations to spend as much as they want on elections, and there is no sector with more money than the oil industry.

"That scares the hell out of the Obama administration," he said.

It's never been clearer that corporations wield the real power in the United States and Canada, activists say.

"This is the beginning of a very big fight for the future," Barlow told IPS.

4 Ways Government Policy Favors the Rich and Keeps the Rest of Us Poor

4 Ways Government Policy Favors the Rich and Keeps the Rest of Us Poor

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The rich really are different from you and me. There’s the obvious, of course: They have a whole hell of a lot more money. But just as important, they are able to preserve their wealth from the forces that decimate the earning power of your average American. While government programs for working or jobless Americans are under constant attack, the state frequently intervenes on behalf of the rich, or at least lets them keep their earnings, tax free (leaving the rest of us to pick up the tab).

Republicans in Congress, and to a lesser extent the Obama administration, seem to believe that austerity is the best way to deal with our recessionary woes (despite all economic evidence to the contrary). Instead of unraveling the safety net, voters should consider all the ways the government aids and abets the one class of people who clearly don’t need help.

1. Protectionism for high-income professionals, free trade for everyone else

Economists incessantly extol the importance of free trade. Opening up our markets through treaties like NAFTA and CAFTA results in a flood of cheap consumer goods, which we all enjoy. However, these policies further expose America’s workforce to overseas competition, accelerating the decimation of middle-class jobs. The wounds inflicted by globalization are often shrugged off as a sad, but inevitable, part of the process. Those who would try to preserve these jobs are denounced as Neanderthalic protectionists.

But while many Americans are forced into low-wage work with no benefits, our doctors are the highest paid in the world. (Every year the medical profession dominates the Forbes list of best paying jobs in the U.S.) How did this happen? They protected themselves from overseas competition. In 1997, a mere three years after NAFTA, the American Medical Association argued that licensing rules for American doctors were too loose and demanded that we greatly restrict the number of foreign doctors practicing in the U.S. Our political elites happily obliged. Five years later, the number of foreign medical students had fallen by half. Our immigration laws also preserve the privilege of the professional classes by banning the government from hiring foreigners in most instances and snarling those who want to work in the private sector in a staggering amount of red tape.

“Our doctors, on average, get paid twice as much as doctors in Western Europe and Canada,” Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said in a phone interview. “The income of high-end professionals is a cost the rest of us bear. Our wages are lower because whatever we take home doesn’t go as far if we pay our doctors $200,000 a year, where they’d get $100,000 in Western Europe.”

These government-protected wages also contribute to our grotesque health care costs that are far higher than those of any other developed nation. If we let people from India or China practice medicine here, we would have more medical professionals, pay them less, and pay less for health care. (Many professional workers are subject to the same principal, to a less extreme degree.)

“Most workers in the U.S. are getting paid the same or less as their counterparts,” Baker said. “If you don’t do the same for high-end workers, that’s class war. People have to understand they are being ripped off.”

2. Rich and own a big house? Here’s some money!

In theory, everyone should love the mortgage interest tax deduction. The lucky homeowner gets to deduct the interest on their mortgage from loans to buy, build, or improve her home directly from her income! (Rent is not deductible because renting, as George W. Bush helpfully explains, is unpatriotic.)

There's a catch of course. Rich people have larger mortgages and higher income taxes. Therefore, they get the most out of their mortgage interest tax deductions. Households earning more than $250,000 annually enjoy 10 times the remuneration of households with income between $40,000 and $75,000. Those homeowners earning $30,000 basically get nothing (check out the chart). Those without the income to buy a home, or who just choose to rent, are probably a bunch of impoverished Communists anyway, so they don’t get a damn thing.

Think of it like this: If you earn less than $30,000 a year, or you live in a big city and probably have to rent, your taxes are paying for housing for everyone else. But most of the benefits of the mortgage tax deduction go to rich people who, apparently, really need your money for that 8,000-square-foot McMansion. This is a system so blatantly unfair that everyone from Manhattan Institute economists to libertarian bloggers thinks the mortgage interest tax deduction is an incredibly regressive policy that should have been reformed years ago.

3. A sales tax for bread but not for bonds (or stocks or futures)

The stock market is the playground of the rich. 83 percent of stocks are owned by one percent of the population. Trillions of dollars are sloshing around in American stock markets, enriching the lucky few and periodically endangering the world economy. But the government gets nothing from this constant trading blizzard.

Sales taxes, which disproportionately hit low-income families, are in force across the nation. Taxes on financial transactions, which would disproportionately affect the rich, barely exist. There is a tiny financial transaction tax, generating $900 million annually, bankrolling the Securities and Exchange Commission. The New York Stock Exchange suffers under the yoke of tax that raises $14.4 billion a year, enough to handle New York’s fiscal deficit, with $4.4 billion leftover. Don’t fret though: The traders don’t pay a dime. It’s all rebated after they tally up how much they would be paying the state government, if anyone bothered to collect.

If New York would get $14.4 billion a year from its theoretical tax on financial transactions, think how much money the United States might make with a national tax. The London Stock Exchange currently operates with a tax for stocks (bonds, securities, and so forth aren’t covered) that pulls in $40 billion annually. The billions upon billions America could gain from such a tax would go a long way toward easing our budgetary woes. Instead, we are debating raising the social security retirement age and fundamentally weakening Medicare.

Wall Street claims such a tax would stall economic growth. “If you look at the seven fastest growing stock markets in the world, each and every one of them has a financial transaction tax,” said Robert Pollin, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute. “China, Singapore, South Korea—all the emerging markets have one. It’s not preventing these economies from growing. Having the tax is not a barrier to a successful financial market.”

Pollin argued a tax would disincentivize excessive trading for short-term profit, one of the causes of the economic meltdown. Short-term traders would get hit by the tax often while those who invest their money responsibly, and for the long term, wouldn’t have to pay much. (Last week, the National Nurses United union used the same argument when it lobbied 61 different Congressional offices in support of a financial transaction tax.)

4. Tired of payroll taxes? The wealthy aren’t because they don’t have to pay

When most people get their paychecks, income taxes are taken out up front, before they ever get their hands on the money. Not so the super-rich, that blessed class of executives, movie actors, big business owners, hedgefund managers, and star athletes. Through a variety of byzantine loopholes, they get to pay their income taxes years, if not decades, in the future. (There’s no interest on this late payment either).

“The biggest single way that the rich benefit from the tax system is that you pay your taxes before you get your money, they pay their taxes by and by,” David Cay Johnson, Reuters tax columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, told me. “This amounts to a loan from the taxpayers. You take $1 you don’t have to pay taxes on today, [invest it and] make 8 percent real return over the next 30 years, and inflation runs 3 percent. At the end of 30 years that one dollar is worth 10 dollars and inflation has eroded the value of the tax to 40 cents.”

But the federal government needs that money now and if they don’t get it from the super-rich (or from taxing, say, financial transactions) they’ll get it by borrowing. This borrowing adds to our debt, leading to conversations about “shared sacrifice,” which leads to massive holes in the budget, which leads to underfunded programs like the Peace Corps, community health centers, Pell Grants, and the National Park Service.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the ways our political system rewards the rich for being rich. Don’t forget all the moaning over ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which discounts the fact that the so-called “Bush tax cuts for the middle class” also help the rich and give them much more money on an individual basis. Or that many of America’s largest corporations haven’t paid a cent of income taxes in years.

There is little chance of these policies, most of which are tax-related, being changed to address the deficit. There is nothing harder to dislodge than entrenched privilege. This is especially true when one of the two major political parties refuses to raise taxes under any circumstance and controls a major policy choke point. (The unchecked torrent of money for lobbying and campaigning advantages the rich as well.)

Keep that in mind while you work until you drop, with little hope of Social Security-backed retirement. At least the rich will be able to enjoy the program: They live longer.

CHART SHOCK: The REAL Unemployment Rate Is 22%

CHART SHOCK: The REAL Unemployment Rate Is 22%

It's now above 23% with the August update. Details from John William's Shadow Stats.

The seasonally-adjusted SGS Alternate Unemployment Rate reflects current unemployment reporting methodology adjusted for SGS-estimated long-term discouraged workers, who were defined out of official existence in 1994. That estimate is added to the BLS estimate of U-6 unemployment, which includes short-term discouraged workers.

The U-3 unemployment rate is the monthly headline number. The U-6 unemployment rate is the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) broadest unemployment measure, including short-term discouraged and other marginally-attached workers as well as those forced to work part-time because they cannot find full-time employment.

Number of ‘mass layoffs’ jumps up 3 percent

Number of ‘mass layoffs’ jumps up 3 percent

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Mass layoffs — when employers let go of 50 or more people at once — has jumped up 3 percent this summer, according to the unemployment numbers that came out Friday. Major companies like Borders, Bank of America, Cisco, Lockheed Martin, and Goldman Sachs have all recently announced mass layoffs.

Although the number of mass layoffs recently spiked, the overall number of mass layoffs has actually declined over the past 3 years.

Watch video, courtesy of CBS News, below:


Job growth grinds to a halt in August

Job growth grinds to a halt in August

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Employment growth ground to a halt in August as sagging consumer confidence discouraged already skittish U.S. businesses from hiring, keeping pressure on the Federal Reserve to provide more monetary stimulus to aid the economy.

Nonfarm payrolls were unchanged, the Labor Department said on Friday, the weakest reading since September. Nonfarm employment for June and July was revised to show 58,000 fewer jobs.

Despite the lack of employment growth, the jobless rate held steady at 9.1 percent. The unemployment rate is derived from a separate survey of households, which showed an increase in employment and a tick up in the labor force participation rate.

While the report underscored the frail state of the economy, the hiring slowdown probably will not be seen as a recession signal as layoffs are not rising that much.

A strike by about 45,000 Verizon Communications workers helped push employment in the information services down by 48,000.

"August was a pretty rough month for the economy," said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. "We saw financial markets tighten. I think businesses sort of responded by putting hiring on the back burner," he said before the release of the report.

An acrimonious political fight over U.S. debt, which culminated in the downgrade of the country's AAA credit rating from Standard & Poor's, and a worsening debt crisis in Europe ignited a massive stock market sell-off last month and sent business and consumer confidence tumbling.

With the unemployment rate stuck above 9 percent and confidence collapsing, President Barack Obama is under pressure to come up with ways to spur job creation. The health of the labor market could determine whether he wins a second term in next year's elections.

Obama will lay out a new jobs plan in a speech to the nation on Thursday.

The weak employment data could strengthen the hand of officials at the U.S. central bank who were ready at their August meeting to do more to help the sputtering economy.

The Fed cut overnight interest rates to near zero in December 2008 and it has bought $2.3 trillion in securities. Many analysts say its arsenal is now largely depleted, although they expect it to do more to try to prop up growth.

DODGING RECESSION

Although hiring cooled, there is little sign companies responded to the darkening outlook by laying off workers. First-time applications for state unemployment benefits have hovered around 400,000 for weeks.

The steady jobless claims, relatively strong consumer spending, continued demand for manufactured goods and increases in industrial production suggest the economy will steer clear of recession.

"We do not expect the economy to slump, but rather to slouch and stagger," said Patrick O'Keefe, head of economic research at accounting firm J.H. Cohn in Roseland, New Jersey.

Still, analysts warn the economy is so weak, any fresh shock could send it tumbling. In the first half of the year, the economy expanded at less than a 1 percent annual rate, bad news for the estimated 14 million unemployed Americans.

If job growth does not accelerate, it could take more than four years to return to the pre-recession employment level.

Private payrolls increased only 17,000 after rising 156,000 in July. Government employment fell 17,000, contracting for a 10th straight month. The decline in government payrolls was tempered by the return of 23,000 state workers in Minnesota after a partial government shutdown in July.

Details of the employment report were weak, with manufacturing payrolls falling 3,000, reflecting the slump in business confidence. Factories added 36,000 new workers in July as disruptions to motor vehicle production caused by a shortage of parts from Japan eased.

The average work week dropped to 34.2 hours, the fewest since January, from 34.3 hours. Average hourly earnings fell three cents.

Ohio sells state prison to private contractor for $73 million

Ohio sells state prison to private contractor for $73 million

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CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Ohio said on Thursday it had gone through with a controversial plan to privatize a portion of the state's prison system, the latest step in Republican Governor John Kasich's campaign to shrink government and close the state's budget shortfall.

Officials said the state had sold the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, an 11-year-old prison housing about 1,500 nonviolent prisoners, to the Corrections Corporation of America for $72.7 million. The state will now pay the Nashville-based company to run the facility.

The privatization of parts of Ohio's prison system was one of the deficit-closing provisions contained in the budget Kasich signed into law earlier in June.

In all, Ohio hoped to sell five prisons, and raise as much as $200 million, in the privatization process. But the bids on the other four facilities fell short of the state's hopes and they will remain in government hands for now.

Last week, ProgressOhio, a liberal policy group, sued to block the privatizations, claiming the sales were unconstitutional.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for later this month. In the meantime, however, the judge declined to impose a temporary restraining order on the state, allowing Thursday's sale to go through.

Carlo LoParo, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, told Reuters the state of Ohio would pay CCA a per diem of $44.25 for each inmate at the Lake Erie prison.

He said CCA's operating costs will be eight percent less than estimated state operational costs, generating a projected $3 million in annual savings.

Ohio has used private companies to manage state-owned prisons since 2001.

Currently, Ohio has 31 correctional institutions housing approximately 51,000 inmates.

What Exxon's Deal With Russia Really Means

What Exxon's Deal With Russia Really Means

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This week ExxonMobil scored a deal to explore for oil in the Russian Arctic Ocean, and in exchange, the Russian state-owned Rosneft apparently got the right to become a part-owner of deepwater drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

But what is a win-win agreement for Exxon and Rosneft is a lose-lose for the rest of us.

First of all, this deal will not lower gas prices. Do the Russians, or ExxonMobil for that matter, care about how much Americans are paying at the gas pump? I don't think so.

The oil that Americans find in Russia -- or that the Russians find in America -- will be sold on an international market -- and the price will be set based on global supply and demand. As a publicly traded company, Exxon is loyal to its shareholders and profits -- not to American consumers.

It doesn't matter if it's American oil or Russian oil -- or some combination of both. It's a perfect example of why increased domestic drilling has not and will never lower gas prices at the pump. In fact, if you look at charts of our gas prices guess what they track? If you said domestic oil production you would be wrong. If you said the international price of oil, you would be correct. The price you pay at the pump is set by commodities traders on international markets not by politicians chanting "drill baby drill."

Second, this deal increases the risk of a catastrophic oil spill enormously. Regardless of where you stand on conducting business with the Russians, one thing is for sure: Exploring for oil in Arctic conditions is incredibly risky.

As Rosneft itself told the Wall Street Journal, the exploration will be performed under complicated ice conditions, with temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The ice pack and icebergs threaten drilling rigs and crews, and if an oil spill occurred in the winter, any cleanup efforts would take place in the dark.

Even under better conditions, "cleanup" is a misnomer, since there is no reliable way to clean up oil. The most recent test of oil spill cleanup capability in the Alaskan Arctic was in 2000 and was described as a failure by NOAA since oil skimmers and booms in icy conditions simply don't work. Plus, remember those highly controversial dispersants BP used in the Gulf? Well, even NOAA's own experts say they don't work in Arctic conditions.

And thirdly (and lastly), in the face of catastrophic climate change, drilling for oil in the Arctic, while irresistible to oil companies, is the absolute wrong direction for the future of our planet. The Arctic exploration is set to take place in the Kara Sea, a formerly inaccessible body of water off the northern coast of European Russia that is now in the oil industry's crosshairs due to melting sea ice. It's an ironic victory for the oil industry, which has managed to leverage global warming to drill for more oil, perpetuating the problem in a vicious cycle.

So what does Exxon's deal with Russia really mean? It means that Arctic communities that depend on the ocean for food and cultural reasons will be faced with the risk of an oil spill without any hope of a reliable cleanup method. In exchange, U.S. gas prices will not go down, and the planet will continue to warm. The only upside in this whole story goes straight to Exxon's shareholders -- whose already record-setting profits will go up even higher.

Instead of pushing to drill for the last drops of oil on Earth, we should be investing in clean energy. It's the only real way to end our reliance on fossil fuels and ensure a safe future for the planet.

The Vast and Expansive US Secret Army

‘Top Secret America’: A look at the military’s Joint Special Operations Command

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The CIA’s armed drones and paramilitary forces have killed dozens of al-Qaeda leaders and thousands of its foot soldiers. But there is another mysterious organization that has killed even more of America’s enemies in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

CIA operatives have imprisoned and interrogated nearly 100 suspected terrorists in their former secret prisons around the world, but troops from this other secret organization have imprisoned and interrogated 10 times as many, holding them in jails that it alone controls in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 9/11, this secretive group of men (and a few women) has grown tenfold while sustaining a level of obscurity that not even the CIA has managed. “We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen,” a strapping Navy SEAL, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said in describing his unit.

The SEALs are just part of the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, known by the acronym JSOC, which has grown from a rarely used hostage rescue team into America’s secret army. When members of this elite force killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May, JSOC leaders celebrated not just the success of the mission but also how few people knew their command, based in Fayetteville, N.C., even existed.

This article, adapted from a chapter of the newly released “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” by Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, chronicles JSOC’s spectacular rise, much of which has not been publicly disclosed before. Two presidents and three secretaries of defense routinely have asked JSOC to mount intelligence-gathering missions and lethal raids, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in countries with which the United States was not at war, including Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Syria.

“The CIA doesn’t have the size or the authority to do some of the things we can do,” said one JSOC operator.

The president has given JSOC the rare authority to select individuals for its kill list — and then to kill, rather than capture, them. Critics charge that this individual man-hunting mission amounts to assassination, a practice prohibited by U.S. law. JSOC’s list is not usually coordinated with the CIA, which maintains a similar but shorter roster of names.

Created in 1980 but reinvented in recent years, JSOC has grown from 1,800 troops prior to 9/11 to as many as 25,000, a number that fluctuates according to its mission. It has its own intelligence division, its own drones and reconnaissance planes, even its own dedicated satellites. It also has its own cyberwarriors, who, on Sept. 11, 2008, shut down every jihadist Web site they knew.

Obscurity has been one of the unit’s hallmarks. When JSOC officers are working in civilian government agencies or U.S. embassies abroad, which they do often, they dispense with uniforms, unlike their other military comrades. In combat, they wear no name or rank identifiers. They have hidden behind various nicknames: the Secret Army of Northern Virginia, Task Force Green, Task Force 11, Task Force 121. JSOC leaders almost never speak in public. They have no unclassified Web site.

Despite the secrecy, JSOC is not permitted to carry out covert action as the CIA can. Covert action, in which the U.S. role is to be kept hidden, requires a presidential finding and congressional notification. Many national security officials, however, say JSOC’s operations are so similar to the CIA’s that they amount to covert action. The unit takes its orders directly from the president or the secretary of defense and is managed and overseen by a military-only chain of command.

Under President George W. Bush, JSOC’s operations were rarely briefed to Congress in advance — and usually not afterward — because government lawyers considered them to be “traditional military activities” not requiring such notification. President Obama has taken the same legal view, but he has insisted that JSOC’s sensitive missions be briefed to select congressional leaders.

Lethal force

JSOC’s first overseas mission in 1980, Operation Eagle Claw, was an attempted rescue of diplomats held hostage by Iranian students at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It ended in a helicopter collision in the desert and the death of eight team members. The unit’s extreme secrecy also made conventional military commanders distrustful and, as a consequence, it was rarely used during conflicts.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, smarting from the CIA’s ability to move first into Afghanistan and frustrated by the Army’s slowness, pumped new life into the organization. JSOC’s core includes the Army’s Delta Force, the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron, and the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and 75th Ranger Regiment.

The lethality of JSOC was demonstrated in the December 2001 mountain battle at Tora Bora. Although bin Laden and many of his followers eventually escaped across the border into Pakistan, an Army history said that on the nights of Dec. 13 and 14, JSOC killed so many enemy forces that “dead bodies of al-Qaeda fighters were carted off the field the next day” by the truckload.

It also made mistakes. On July 1, 2002, in what the Rand Corp. labeled “the single most serious errant attack of the entire war,” a JSOC reconnaissance team hunting Taliban came under attack and an AC-130 gunship fired upon six sites in the village of Kakarak. The estimates of civilian deaths ranged from 48 to hundreds. The “wedding party incident,” as it became known because a wedding party was among the targets accidentally hit, convinced many Afghans that U.S. forces disregarded the lives of civilians.

Nevertheless, on Sept. 16, 2003, Rumsfeld signed an executive order cementing JSOC as the center of the counterterrorism universe. It listed 15 countries and the activities permitted under various scenarios, and it gave the preapprovals required to carry them out.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, lethal action against al-Qaeda was granted without additional approval. In the other countries — among them Algeria, Iran, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia and Syria — JSOC forces needed the tacit approval from the country involved or at least a sign-off from higher up on the American chain of command. In the Philippines, for example, JSOC could undertake psychological operations to confuse or trap al-Qaeda operatives, but it needed approval from the White House for lethal action. To attack targets in Somalia required approval from at least the secretary of defense, while attacks in Pakistan and Syria needed presidential sign-off.

In the fall of 2003, JSOC got a new commander who would turn the organization into arguably the most effective weapon in the U.S. counterterrorism arsenal. From his perch as vice director of operations on the Joint Staff, Brig. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal had come to believe there was an aversion to decision making at the top of government. No one wanted to be wrong, so they asked more questions or added more layers to the process. The new emphasis on interagency cooperation also meant meetings were bigger and longer. Any one of a multitude of agencies could stifle action until it was too late.

McChrystal believed he had “to slip out of the grip” of Washington’s suffocating bureaucracy, he told associates. He moved his headquarters to Balad Air Base, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, and worked inside an old concrete airplane hangar with three connecting command centers: one to fight al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, one for the fight against Shiite extremists in the country and a third for himself, so he could oversee all operations.

He coaxed the other intelligence agencies to help him out — the CIA presence grew to 100, the FBI and National Security Agency to a combined 80. He won their loyalty by exposing the guts of his operation to everyone involved. “The more people you shared your problem with, the better you’d do in solving it,” he would say.

McChrystal installed a simple, PC-based common desktop and portal where troops could post documents, conduct chats, tap into the intelligence available on any target — pictures, biometrics, transcripts, intelligence reports — and follow the message traffic of commanders in the midst of operations.

Then he gave access to it to JSOC’s bureaucratic rivals: the CIA, NSA, FBI and others. He also began salting every national security agency in Washington with his top commandos. In all, he deployed 75 officers to Washington agencies and 100 more around the world. They rotated every four months so none would become disconnected from combat.

Some thought of the liaisons as spies for an organization that was already too important. But those suspicions did little to derail JSOC or McChrystal.

Stories spread that he ate just one meal and ran 10 miles every day. He looked the part, with his taut face, intense eyes and thin physique. A sign inside the wire at Balad said it all: “17 5 2.” Seventeen hours for work, five hours for sleep, two hours for eating and exercise.

McChrystal’s legendary work ethic mixed well with his Scotch Irish exuberance and common-man demeanor. He viewed beer calls with subordinates as an important bonding exercise. He made people call him by his first name. He seemed almost naively trusting. (This trait would become McChrystal’s undoing in 2010, after he was promoted to commander of forces in Afghanistan. He and members of his inner circle made what were seen as inappropriate comments about their civilian leaders in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter. McChrystal offered to resign, and Obama quickly accepted.)

Harnessing technology

The Iraqi insurgency’s reliance on modern technology also gave tech-savvy JSOC and its partners, particularly the National Security Agency, an advantage. The NSA learned to locate all electronic signals in Iraq. “We just had a field day,” said a senior JSOC commander, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe secret operations.

One innovation was called the Electronic Divining Rod, a sensor worn by commandos that could detect the location of a particular cellphone. The beeping grew louder as a soldier with the device got closer to the person carrying a targeted phone.

Killing the enemy was the easy part, JSOC commanders said; finding him was the hard part. But thanks to Roy Apseloff, director of the National Media Exploitation Center, the U.S. government’s agency for analyzing documents captured by the military and intelligence community, JSOC’s intelligence collection improved dramatically. Apseloff offered to lend McChrystal his small staff, based in Fairfax, to examine items captured in raids. Apseloff’s team downloaded the contents of thumb drives, cellphones and locked or damaged computers to extract names, phone numbers, messages and images. Then they processed and stored that data, linking it to other information that might help analysts find not just one more bad guy but an entire network of them.

The major challenge was how to find the gems in the trash quickly enough to be useful. The key was more bandwidth, the electronic pipeline that carried such information as e-mail and telephone calls around the world. Luckily for the military and JSOC, the attacks of 2001 coincided with an unrelated development: the dot-com bust. It created a glut in commercial satellite capacity, and the military bought up much of it.

Within a year after McChrystal’s arrival, JSOC had linked 65 stations around the world to enable viewers to participate in the twice-daily, 45-minute video teleconferences that he held. By 2006, JSOC had increased its bandwidth capability by 100 times in three years, according to senior leaders.

The other challenge JSOC faced was a human one: Ill-trained interrogators had little information about individual detainees and didn’t know what questions to ask or how to effectively ask them. Worse, some members of the JSOC’s Task Force 121 were beating prisoners.

Even before the Army’s Abu Ghraib prison photos began circulating in 2004, a confidential report warned that some JSOC interrogators were assaulting prisoners and hiding them in secret facilities. JSOC troops also detained mothers, wives and daughters when the men in a house they were looking for were not at home. The report warned these detentions and other massive sweep operations were counterproductive to winning Iraqi support.

An investigation of JSOC detention facilities in Iraq during a four-month period in 2004 found that interrogators gave some prisoners only bread and water, in one case for 17 days. Other prisoners were locked up in cells so cramped they could not stand up or lie down while their captors played loud music to disrupt sleep. Still others were stripped, drenched with cold water and then interrogated in air-conditioned rooms or outside in the cold.

Eventually, 34 JSOC task force soldiers were disciplined in five cases over a one-year period beginning in 2003.

McChrystal ordered his intelligence chief, Michael Flynn, to professionalize the interrogation system. By the summer of 2005, JSOC’s interrogation booths at Balad sat around the corner from the large warren of rooms where specialists mined thumb drives, computers, cellphones, documents to use during interrogations. Paper maps were torn down from the walls and replaced with flat-panel screens and sophisticated computerized maps. Detainees willing to cooperate were taught how to use a mouse to fly around their virtual neighborhoods to help identify potential targets.

JSOC had to use the rules laid out in the Army Field Manual to interrogate detainees. But its interrogators were — and still are — permitted to keep them segregated from other prisoners and to hold them, with the proper approvals from superiors and in some case from Defense Department lawyers, for up to 90 days before they have to be transferred into the regular military prison population.

The new interrogation system also included an FBI and judicial team that collected evidence needed for trial by the Iraqi Central Criminal Court in Baghdad. From early 2005 to early 2007, the teams sent more than 2,000 individuals to trial, said senior military officials.

Body counts

Al-Qaeda used the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a call to arms to terrorists and recruits throughout the Middle East who flooded in from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — as many as 200 of them a month at the high point. By the end of 2005, a shocking picture emerged: Iraq was rife with semiautonomous al-Qaeda networks.

Al-Qaeda had divided Iraq into sections and put a provincial commander in charge of each. These commanders further divided their territory into districts and put someone in charge of each of those, too, according to military officials. There were city leaders within those areas and cells within each city. There were leaders for foreign fighters, for finance and for communications, too.

By the spring of 2006, using the expanded bandwidth and constant surveillance by unmanned aircraft, JSOC executed a series of raids, known as Operation Arcadia, in which it collected and analyzed 662 hours of full-motion video shot over 17 days. The raid netted 92 compact discs and barrels full of documents, leading to another round of raids at 14 locations. Those hits yielded hard drives, thumb drives and a basement stacked with 704 compact discs, including copies of a sophisticated al-Qaeda marketing campaign. Operation Arcadia led, on June 7, 2006, to the death of the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, when JSOC directed an airstrike that killed him.

JSOC’s lethality was evident in its body counts: In 2008, in Afghanistan alone, JSOC commandos struck 550 targets and killed roughly a thousand people, officials said. In 2009, they executed 464 operations and killed 400 to 500 enemy forces. As Iraq descended into chaos in the summer of 2005, JSOC conducted 300 raids a month. More than 50 percent of JSOC Army Delta Force commandos now have Purple Hearts.

The most intense Iraqi raids reminded McChrystal of Lawrence of Arabia’s description of “rings of sorrow,” the emotional toll casualties take on small groups of warriors. Greatly influenced by T.E. Lawrence’s life story, McChrystal thought of his JSOC troops as modern-day tribal forces: dependent upon one another for kinship and survival.

If killing were all that winning wars was about, the book on JSOC would be written. But no war in modern times is ever won simply by killing enough of the enemy. Even in an era of precision weaponry, accidents happen that create huge political setbacks.

Every JSOC raid that also wounded or killed civilians, or destroyed a home or someone’s livelihood, became a source of grievance so deep that the counterproductive effects, still unfolding, are difficult to calculate. JSOC’s success in targeting the right homes, businesses and individuals was only ever about 50 percent, according to two senior commanders. They considered this rate a good one.

“Sometimes our actions were counterproductive,” McChrystal said in an interview. “We would say, ‘We need to go in and kill this guy,’ but just the effects of our kinetic action did something negative and they [the conventional army forces that occupied much of the country] were left to clean up the mess.”

In 2008, Bush also briefly sent JSOC into Pakistan. To soothe the worries of U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson about the mounting civilian deaths from JSOC raids in other countries, commandos brought her a Predator console so she could witness a raid in real time. Because of public outcry in Pakistan, U.S. officials canceled the mission after only three raids. The CIA has continued to conduct drone strikes there.

Targeting bureaucracy

The Defense Department has given JSOC a bigger role in nonmilitary assignments as well, including tracing the flow of money from international banks to finance terrorist networks. It also has become deeply involved in “psychological operations,” which it renamed “military information operations” to sound less intimidating. JSOC routinely sends small teams in civilian clothes to U.S. embassies to help with what it calls media and messaging campaigns.

When Obama came into office, he cottoned to the organization immediately. (It didn’t hurt that his CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, has a son who, as a naval reservist, had deployed with JSOC.) Soon Obama was using JSOC even more than his predecessor. In 2010, for example, he secretly directed JSOC troops to Yemen to kill the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Arab Spring forced the White House to delay some JSOC missions. In the meantime, the organization is busy with its new 30,000-square-foot office building turned command center. Unlike previous offices, it is not in some obscure part of the world. It sits across the highway from the Pentagon in pristine suburban splendor, just a five-minute drive from McChrystal’s civilian office and the former general’s favorite beer-call restaurants.

As its name implies, the focus of Joint Special Operations Task Force-National Capital Region is not the next terrorist network but another of its lifelong enemies: the Washington bureaucracy. Some 50 battle-hardened JSOC warriors and a handful of other federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies work there.

Mexico is at the top of its wish list. So far the Mexican government, whose constitution limits contact with the U.S. military, is relying on the other federal agencies — the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — for intelligence collection and other help.

But JSOC’s National Capital task force is not just sitting idly by, waiting to be useful to its southern neighbors. It is creating targeting packages for U.S. domestic agencies that have sought its help, including the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the second-largest federal law enforcement agency and the latest to make a big play for a larger U.S. counterterrorism role.