Saturday, November 12, 2011

The War Against the Poor

The War Against the Poor

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e've been at war for decades now - not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but right here at home. Domestically, it's been a war against the poor, but if you hadn't noticed, that's not surprising. You wouldn't often have found the casualty figures from this particular conflict in your local newspaper or on the nightly TV news. Devastating as it's been, the war against the poor has gone largely unnoticed - until now.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has already made the concentration of wealth at the top of this society a central issue in American politics. Now, it promises to do something similar when it comes to the realities of poverty in this country.

By making Wall Street its symbolic target, and branding itself as a movement of the 99%, OWS has redirected public attention to the issue of extreme inequality, which it has recast as, essentially, a moral problem. Only a short time ago, the "morals" issue in politics meant the propriety of sexual preferences, reproductive behavior, or the personal behavior of presidents. Economic policy, including tax cuts for the rich, subsidies and government protection for insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and financial deregulation, was shrouded in clouds of propaganda or simply considered too complex for ordinary Americans to grasp.

Now, in what seems like no time at all, the fog has lifted and the topic on the table everywhere seems to be the morality of contemporary financial capitalism. The protestors have accomplished this mainly through the symbolic power of their actions: by naming Wall Street, the heartland of financial capitalism, as the enemy, and by welcoming the homeless and the down-and-out to their occupation sites. And of course, the slogan "We are the 99%" reiterated the message that almost all of us are suffering from the reckless profiteering of a tiny handful. (In fact, they aren't far off: the increase in income of the top 1% over the past three decades about equals the losses of the bottom 80%.)

The movement's moral call is reminiscent of earlier historical moments when popular uprisings invoked ideas of a "moral economy" to justify demands for bread or grain or wages - for, that is, a measure of economic justice. Historians usually attribute popular ideas of a moral economy to custom and tradition, as when the British historian E.P. Thompson traced the idea of a "just price" for basic foodstuffs invoked by eighteenth century English food rioters to then already centuries-old Elizabethan statutes. But the rebellious poor have never simply been traditionalists. In the face of violations of what they considered to be their customary rights, they did not wait for the magistrates to act, but often took it upon themselves to enforce what they considered to be the foundation of a just moral economy.

Being Poor By the Numbers

A moral economy for our own time would certainly take on the unbridled accumulation of wealth at the expense of the majority (and the planet). It would also single out for special condemnation the creation of an ever-larger stratum of people we call "the poor" who struggle to survive in the shadow of the overconsumption and waste of that top 1%.

Some facts: early in 2011, the US Census Bureau reported that 14.3% of the population, or 47 million people - one in six Americans - were living below the official poverty threshold, currently set at $22,400 annually for a family of four. Some 19 million people are living in what is called extreme poverty, which means that their household income falls in the bottom half of those considered to be below the poverty line. More than a third of those extremely poor people are children. Indeed, more than half of all children younger than six living with a single mother are poor. Extrapolating from this data, Emily Monea and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution estimate that further sharp increases in both poverty and child poverty rates lie in our American future.

Some experts dispute these numbers on the grounds that they neither take account of the assistance that the poor still receive, mainly through the food stamp program, nor of regional variations in the cost of living. In fact, bad as they are, the official numbers don't tell the full story. The situation of the poor is actually considerably worse. The official poverty line is calculated as simply three times the minimal food budget first introduced in 1959, and then adjusted for inflation in food costs. In other words, the American poverty threshold takes no account of the cost of housing or fuel or transportation or health-care costs, all of which are rising more rapidly than the cost of basic foods. So the poverty measure grossly understates the real cost of subsistence.

Moreover, in 2006, interest payments on consumer debt had already put more than four million people, not officially in poverty, below the line, making them "debt poor." Similarly, if childcare costs, estimated at $5,750 a year in 2006, were deducted from gross income, many more people would be counted as officially poor.

Nor are these catastrophic levels of poverty merely a temporary response to rising unemployment rates or reductions in take-home pay resulting from the great economic meltdown of 2008. The numbers tell the story and it's clear enough: poverty was on the rise before the Great Recession hit. Between 2001 and 2007, poverty actually increased for the first time on record during an economic recovery. It rose from 11.7% in 2001 to 12.5% in 2007. Poverty rates for single mothers in 2007 were 49% higher in the US than in 15 other high-income countries. Similarly, black employment rates and income were declining before the recession struck.

In part, all of this was the inevitable fallout from a decades-long business mobilization to reduce labor costs by weakening unions and changing public policies that protected workers and those same unions. As a result, National Labor Board decisions became far less favorable to both workers and unions, workplace regulations were not enforced, and the minimum wage lagged far behind inflation.

Inevitably, the overall impact of the campaign to reduce labor's share of national earnings meant that a growing number of Americans couldn't earn even a poverty-level livelihood - and even that's not the whole of it. The poor and the programs that assisted them were the objects of a full-bore campaign directed specifically at them.

Campaigning Against the Poor

This attack began even while the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s was in full throttle. It was already evident in the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater, as well as in the recurrent campaigns of sometime Democrat and segregationist governor of Alabama George Wallace. Richard Nixon's presidential bid in 1968 picked up on the theme.

As many commentators have pointed out, his triumphant campaign strategy tapped into the rising racial animosities not only of white southerners, but of a white working class in the north that suddenly found itself locked in competition with newly urbanized African-Americans for jobs, public services, and housing, as well as in campaigns for school desegregation. The racial theme quickly melded into political propaganda targeting the poor and contemporary poor-relief programs. Indeed, in American politics "poverty," along with "welfare," "unwed mothers," and "crime," became code words for blacks.

In the process, resurgent Republicans tried to defeat Democrats at the polls by associating them with blacks and with liberal policies meant to alleviate poverty. One result was the infamous "war on drugs" that largely ignored major traffickers in favor of the lowest level offenders in inner-city communities. Along with that came a massive program of prison building and incarceration, as well as the wholesale "reform" of the main means-tested cash assistance program, Aid to Families of Dependent Children. This politically driven attack on the poor proved just the opening drama in a decades-long campaign launched by business and the organized right against workers.

This was not only war against the poor, but the very "class war" that Republicans now use to brand just about any action they don't like. In fact, class war was the overarching goal of the campaign, something that would soon enough become apparent in policies that led to a massive redistribution of the burden of taxation, the cannibalization of government services through privatization, wage cuts and enfeebled unions, and the deregulation of business, banks, and financial institutions.

The poor - and blacks - were an endlessly useful rhetorical foil, a propagandistic distraction used to win elections and make bigger gains. Still, the rhetoric was important. A host of new think tanks, political organizations, and lobbyists in Washington D.C. promoted the message that the country's problems were caused by the poor whose shiftlessness, criminal inclinations, and sexual promiscuity were being indulged by a too-generous welfare system.

Genuine suffering followed quickly enough, along with big cuts in the means-tested programs that helped the poor. The staging of the cuts was itself enwreathed in clouds of propaganda, but cumulatively they frayed the safety net that protected both the poor and workers, especially low-wage ones, which meant women and minorities. When Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office in 1980, the path had been smoothed for huge cuts in programs for poor people, and by the 1990s the Democrats, looking for electoral strategies that would raise campaign dollars from big business and put them back in power, took up the banner. It was Bill Clinton, after all, who campaigned on the slogan "end welfare as we know it."

A Movement for a Moral Economy

The war against the poor at the federal level was soon matched in state capitols where organizations like the American Federation for Children, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Institute for Liberty, and the State Policy Network went to work. Their lobbying agenda was ambitious, including the large-scale privatization of public services, business tax cuts, the rollback of environmental regulations and consumer protections, crippling public sector unions, and measures (like requiring photo identification) that would restrict the access students and the poor had to the ballot. But the poor were their main public target and again, there were real life consequences - welfare cutbacks, particularly in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, and a law-and-order campaign that resulted in the massive incarceration of black men.

The Great Recession sharply worsened these trends. The Economic Policy Institute reports that the typical working-age household, which had already seen a decline of roughly $2,300 in income between 2000 and 2006, lost another $2,700 between 2007 and 2009. And when "recovery" arrived, however uncertainly, it was mainly in low-wage industries, which accounted for nearly half of what growth there was. Manufacturing continued to contract, while the labor market lost 6.1% of payroll employment. New investment, when it occurred at all, was more likely to be in machinery than in new workers, so unemployment levels remain alarmingly high. In other words, the recession accelerated ongoing market trends toward lower-wage and ever more insecure employment.

The recession also prompted further cutbacks in welfare programs. Because cash assistance has become so hard to get, thanks to so-called welfare reform, and fallback state-assistance programs have been crippled, the federal food stamp program has come to carry much of the weight in providing assistance to the poor. Renamed the "Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program," it was boosted by funds provided in the Recovery Act, and benefits temporarily rose, as did participation. But Congress has repeatedly attempted to slash the program's funds, and even to divert some of them into farm subsidies, while efforts, not yet successful, have been made to deny food stamps to any family that includes a worker on strike.

The organized right justifies its draconian policies toward the poor with moral arguments. Right-wing think tanks and blogs, for instance, ponder the damaging effect on disabled poor children of becoming "dependent" on government assistance, or they scrutinize government nutritional assistance for poor pregnant women and children in an effort to explain away positive outcomes for infants.

The willful ignorance and cruelty of it all can leave you gasping - and gasp was all we did for decades. This is why we so desperately needed a movement for a new kind of moral economy. Occupy Wall Street, which has already changed the national conversation, may well be its beginning.

12 Facts About Money And Congress That Are So Outrageous That It Is Hard To Believe That They Are Actually True

12 Facts About Money And Congress That Are So Outrageous That It Is Hard To Believe That They Are Actually True

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Do you want to get rich? Just get elected to Congress. The U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives are absolutely packed with wealthy people that are very rapidly becoming even wealthier. The collective net worth of the members of Congress is now measured in the billions of dollars. The people that we have elected to the House and Senate are absolutely swimming in money. Unfortunately, it is not easy to get elected to Congress. In this day and age you generally have to be heavily connected to those that are very wealthy to get into Congress because it takes gigantic amounts of cash to win campaigns. But if you can get in to the club, you pretty much have it made. The numbers that you are about to read are very difficult to believe and they should deeply sadden you. They show that Congress has become all about money. Congressional races are mostly financed by wealthy people, most of the people that we elect to Congress are very wealthy, and they rapidly get wealthier after they are elected. All of this money has turned our republic into something far different than our founding fathers intended.

The following are 12 statistics about money and Congress that are so outrageous that it is hard to believe that they are actually true....

#1 The collective net worth of all of the members of Congress increased by 25 percent between 2008 and 2010.

#2 The collective net worth of all of the members of Congress is now slightly over 2 billion dollars. That is "billion" with a "b".

#3 This happened during a time when the net worth of most American households was declining rapidly. According to the Federal Reserve, the collective net worth of all American households decreased by 23 percent between 2007 and 2009.

#4 The average net worth for a member of Congress is now approximately 3.8 million dollars.

#5 The net worth of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi increased by 62 percent from 2009 to 2010. In 2009 it was reported that she had a net worth of 21.7 million dollars, and in 2010 it was reported that she had a net worth of 35.2 million dollars.

#6 The top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, saw his wealth grow by 29 percent from 2009 to 2010. He is now worth approximately 9.8 million dollars.

#7 More than 50 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress are millionaires.

#8 In 2008, the average cost of winning a seat in the House of Representatives was $1.1 million and the average cost of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate was $6.5 million. Spending on political campaigns has gotten way out of control.

#9 Insider trading is perfectly legal for members of the U.S. Congress - and they refuse to pass a law that would change that.

#10 The percentage of millionaires in Congress is more than 50 times higher than the percentage of millionaires in the general population.

#11 U.S. Representative Darrell Issa is worth approximately 220 million dollars. His wealth grew by approximately 37 percent from 2009 to 2010.

#12 The wealthiest member of Congress, U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, is worth approximately 294 million dollars.

So how are members of Congress becoming so wealthy?

Well, there are lots of ways they are raking in the cash, but one especially alarming thing that goes on is that members of Congress often make investments in companies that will go up significantly if legislation that is being considered by Congress "goes the right way".

This is called a "conflict of interest", but it happens constantly in Congress and nobody seems to get into any trouble for it.

The following is video of Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes ambushing Nancy Pelosi about one particular conflict of interest involving credit card legislation. As you can see, she does not want to talk about it....

As noted above, insider trading is perfectly legal for members of Congress.

A law that would ban insider trading by members of Congress has been stalled for years on Capitol Hill.

So has this been a significant benefit to members of Congress?

Well, there has been at least one study that appears to indicate that members of Congress have been much more successful in the stock market than members of the general public have....

A 2004 study of the results of stock trading by United States Senators during the 1990s found that that senators on average beat the market by 12% a year. In sharp contrast, U.S. households on average underperformed the market by 1.4% a year and even corporate insiders on average beat the market by only about 6% a year during that period. A reasonable inference is that some Senators had access to - and were using - material nonpublic information about the companies in whose stock they trade.

Of course all of this could just be a coincidence, right?

Meanwhile, members of Congress keep telling the rest of us that we are just going to have to cut back because times are tough.

For example, during an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Nancy Pelosi actually claimed that we should try to encourage poor people to have less children because it costs the government so much money to take care of them....

PELOSI: Well, the family planning services reduce cost. They reduce cost. The states are in terrible fiscal budget crises now and part of what we do for children's health, education and some of those elements are to help the states meet their financial needs. One of those - one of the initiatives you mentioned, the contraception, will reduce costs to the states and to the federal government.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no apologies for that?

PELOSI: No apologies. No. we have to deal with the consequences of the downturn in our economy.

This elitist attitude extends all the way into the White House as well. Earlier this year, Barack Obama made the following statement....

"If you’re a family trying to cut back, you might skip going out to dinner, or you might put off a vacation."

Meanwhile, the Obamas are living the high life at taxpayer expense. In a previous article I mentioned one outrageously expensive vacation taken by the Obamas that was paid for by our taxes....

"Back in August, Michelle Obama took her daughter Sasha and 40 of her friends for a vacation in Spain.

So what was the bill to the taxpayers for that little jaunt across the pond?

It is estimated that vacation alone cost U.S. taxpayers $375,000."

There is a massive disconnect between what our politicians say and what our politicians do.

The high life is good enough for them, but the rest of us have got to "cut back" and suffer becomes times are hard.

But when it comes to money and Congress, the most corrupting influence of all is probably all of the campaign money that gets thrown around.

In America today, it takes gigantic mountains of money to run a successful campaign.

Sadly, the candidate that raises the most money almost always wins. In federal elections the candidate that raises the most money wins about 90 percent of the time.

More than 5 billion dollars were spent on political campaigns back in 2008.

That represents a huge number of favors that need to be paid back.

In 2012, it is being projected that 8 billion dollars could be spent on political campaigns.

When big corporations and wealthy individuals shovel huge piles of money into political campaigns, it is generally because they expect something in return.

Most of those that get sent to Congress realize that they never would have won if wealthy donors had not showered cash on them. Most of them understand that they should not bite the hands that feed them if they want the cash to keep rolling in.

Politics in America has become a game that is played by the elite for the benefit of the elite.

Average Americans have the perception that they are involved in the process and that their opinions really matter, but mostly it is just an illusion.

It is so sad.

Meanwhile, members of Congress rapidly get wealthier and average American families continue to suffer. In fact, the standard of living in the United States has fallen farther over the past three years than at any other time that has ever been recorded in U.S. history.

But for members of Congress the good times just keep on rolling.

Just as it has been for most of human history, the rich rule over the poor.

Does anyone out there believe that we have any hope of changing this?

Most of the unemployed no longer receive benefits

Most of the unemployed no longer receive benefits

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The jobs crisis has left so many people out of work for so long that most of America's unemployed are no longer receiving unemployment benefits.

Early last year, 75 percent were receiving checks. The figure is now 48 percent — a shift that points to a growing crisis of long-term unemployment. Nearly one-third of America's 14 million unemployed have had no job for a year or more.

Congress is expected to decide by year's end whether to continue providing emergency unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks in the hardest-hit states. If the emergency benefits expire, the proportion of the unemployed receiving aid would fall further.

The ranks of the poor would also rise. The Census Bureau says unemployment benefits kept 3.2 million people from slipping into poverty last year. It defines poverty as annual income below $22,314 for a family of four.

Yet for a growing share of the unemployed, a vote in Congress to extend the benefits to 99 weeks is irrelevant. They've had no job for more than 99 weeks. They're no longer eligible for benefits.

Their options include food stamps or other social programs. Nearly 46 million people received food stamps in August, a record total. That figure could grow as more people lose unemployment benefits.

So could the government's disability rolls. Applications for the disability insurance program have jumped about 50 percent since 2007.

"There's going to be increased hardship," said Wayne Vroman, an economist at the Urban Institute.

The number of unemployed has been roughly stable this year. Yet the number receiving benefits has plunged 30 percent.

Government unemployment benefits weren't designed to sustain people for long stretches without work. They usually don't have to. In the recoveries from the previous three recessions, the longest average duration of unemployment was 21 weeks, in July 1983.

By contrast, in the wake of the Great Recession, the figure reached 41 weeks in September. That's the longest on records dating to 1948. The figure is now 39 weeks.

"It was a good safety net for a shorter recession," said Carl Van Horn, an economist at Rutgers University. It assumes "the economy will experience short interruptions and then go back to normal."

Weekly unemployment checks average about $300 nationwide. If the extended benefits aren't renewed, growth could slow by up to a half-percentage point next year, economists say.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that each $1 spent on unemployment benefits generates up to $1.90 in economic growth. The CBO has found that the program is the most effective government policy for increasing growth among 11 options it's analyzed.

Jon Polis lives in East Greenwich, R.I., one of the 20 states where 99 weeks of benefits are available. He used them all up after losing his job as a warehouse worker in 2008. His benefits paid for groceries, car maintenance and health insurance.

Now, Polis, 55, receives disability insurance payments, food stamps and lives in government-subsidized housing. He's been unable to find work because employers in his field want computer skills he doesn't have.

"Employers are crying that they can't find qualified help," he said. But the ones he interviewed with "weren't willing to train anybody."

From late 2007, when the recession began, to early 2010, the number of people receiving unemployment benefits rose more than four-fold, to 11.5 million.

But the economy has remained so weak that an analysis of long-term unemployment data suggests that about 2 million people have used up 99 weeks of checks and still can't find work.

Contributing to the smaller share of the unemployed who are receiving benefits: Some of them are college graduates or others seeking jobs for the first time. They aren't eligible. Only those who have lost a job through no fault of their own qualify.

The proportion of the unemployed receiving benefits usually falls below 50 percent during an economic recovery. Many have either quit jobs or are new to the job market and don't qualify.

Today, the proportion is falling for a very different reason: Jobs remain scarce. So more of the unemployed are exhausting their benefits.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has noted that the long-term unemployed increasingly find it hard to find work as their skills and professional networks erode. In a speech last month, Bernanke called long-term unemployment a "national crisis" that should be a top priority for Congress.

Lawmakers will have to decide whether to continue the extended benefits by the end of this year. If the program ends, nearly 2.2 million people will be cut off by February.

Congress has extended the program nine times. But it might balk at the $45 billion cost. It will be the first time the Republican-led House will vote on the issue.

Seniors Falling Into Poverty Faster in New Census Measure

U.S. Poverty Rate Rises to 16 Percent in Alternate Census Data

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The U.S. poverty rate was 16 percent in 2010 measured under an alternative method, up from the official rate of 15.2 percent released earlier, according to the Census Bureau.

Today’s data, called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, is based on how much families spend on food, clothing, shelter and utilities. It represents a shift from the method the bureau has used since the 1960s, which determined the official poverty line by tripling a family’s annual food budget.

The annual income at which a family of four -- two adults and two children -- is considered living in poverty was $24,343 in 2010 under the supplemental measure calculations. That compares with the official figure of $22,113 for the same year.

The supplemental measure put the percentage of Americans under 18 living in poverty at 18.2 percent, a drop from the 22.5 percent official rate. Among those 65 and older, the supplemental rate was 15.9 percent, an increase from the 9 percent official rate.

The bureau reported the official numbers in September. They showed the proportion of people living in poverty climbing to 15.1 percent last year from 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest level since 1993. The official numbers use a method based on U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics showing that about a third of the average American family’s income is spent on food, according to a 2006 article in The New Yorker.

Corporate Media Stumped On How To Cover The Occupy Movement

Corporate Media Stumped on How to Cover the Occupy Movement

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Conventional journalism is increasingly irrelevant in a time of crisis. We find abundant proof in a recent column [2] from the New York Times’ so-called “Public Editor,” who is supposed to somehow magically represent the public interest and rarefied ethical values to the rest of the paper.

In this column, he says the media is having difficulty figuring out how to cover Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots.

What are the themes? How should The New York Times cover this movement that resembles no other in memory?

Certainly, media organizations are intrinsically better able to cover snapshot moments like official actions and pronouncements than movements or complex and subtly if rapidly evolving situations—like climate change, or Occupy.

In any case, for answers, the Public Editor turns to colleagues outside The Times, and solicits their wisdom:

Stephen Buckley, dean of faculty, The Poynter Institute; former managing editor, St. Petersburg Times

To my mind, the compelling question driving the Occupy Wall Street story is: How come these people are so angry? And maybe more compellingly: Why did it take them so long to get angry? (We’ve been feeling the effects of a recession for more than four years….)

[Snip]

First of all, “we” (being Mr. Buckley) presumably are not feeling the effects of the recession in quite the same way as those who lost their homes and jobs. Second of all, this is not a protest over the recession. It is the result of a few brave souls who finally had had enough of a lousy system and took to the streets, inspiring others to (gradually) follow.

Here’s another deep thinker:

Jerry Ceppos, dean, Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University; former executive editor, San Jose Mercury News

This certainly must be the first significant movement for which I can’t paint a picture of typical leaders and followers. How is that possible? Have I simply not followed the stories carefully? Or have we as journalists covered the forest and failed to profile the trees?

Here are some ways I’d identify the trees:

  • Leadership tells you a lot about a movement. But I can’t cite the name of a single Occupy Wall Street leader. I know some members say the groups are “leaderless.” But I have trouble believing that this is an entirely organic movement that grew without a leader. I’d push hard to see if there are leaders and to profile them.
  • Likewise, I don’t have a clear picture of a typical protester. Is there such a thing? If so, tell me the story of a few such people. These stories could be fascinating: Are the protesters ex-Lehman millionaires who lost it all in the melt-down? Or are they regular people who just can’t get jobs? Or do they have jobs but think that financial life still is unfair? In addition, is the mix of protesters similar in each city?

[Snip]

It takes a pretty smug, isolated—and nasty—fellow to write those words.

Keep in mind that these two men not only ran what were considered two of America’s better daily newspapers, but now are in charge of shaping young hearts and minds at journalism schools.

Their posture is akin to asking what the serfs could possibly be upset about. It’s treating Americans who are poor or fed up like they’re some exotic species just discovered. Yet their own publications have been reporting periodically (though certainly not constantly) on the corruption and inside dealing that constitutes our “American Dream” environment.

After these two, I just couldn’t stand to read what any others of the elect had to say. But one thing seems clear: The fact that these people don’t get it—that the entire system stinks, and that they’re part of the system—says everything.

It’s about doing the bidding of the rich and privileged. Playing ball, going to the right schools, joining the right clubs, saying the right things, knowing when to leave well enough alone, digging—but not too deep. Asking questions—but not the right ones. Treating malfeasance as an aberration rather than a terminal condition of our society.

The point here is that these institutions of inquiry—and the kinds of people chosen to run them— are not our best hope for understanding and solving our problems. We need to move on to something new, and better.

Solar Is Now Cost-Effective

Here Comes the Sun

For decades the story of technology has been dominated, in the popular mind and to a large extent in reality, by computing and the things you can do with it. Moore’s Law — in which the price of computing power falls roughly 50 percent every 18 months — has powered an ever-expanding range of applications, from faxes to Facebook.

Our mastery of the material world, on the other hand, has advanced much more slowly. The sources of energy, the way we move stuff around, are much the same as they were a generation ago.

But that may be about to change. We are, or at least we should be, on the cusp of an energy transformation, driven by the rapidly falling cost of solar power. That’s right, solar power.

If that surprises you, if you still think of solar power as some kind of hippie fantasy, blame our fossilized political system, in which fossil fuel producers have both powerful political allies and a powerful propaganda machine that denigrates alternatives.

Speaking of propaganda: Before I get to solar, let’s talk briefly about hydraulic fracturing, a k a fracking.

Fracking — injecting high-pressure fluid into rocks deep underground, inducing the release of fossil fuels — is an impressive technology. But it’s also a technology that imposes large costs on the public. We know that it produces toxic (and radioactive) wastewater that contaminates drinking water; there is reason to suspect, despite industry denials, that it also contaminates groundwater; and the heavy trucking required for fracking inflicts major damage on roads.

Economics 101 tells us that an industry imposing large costs on third parties should be required to “internalize” those costs — that is, to pay for the damage it inflicts, treating that damage as a cost of production. Fracking might still be worth doing given those costs. But no industry should be held harmless from its impacts on the environment and the nation’s infrastructure.

Yet what the industry and its defenders demand is, of course, precisely that it be let off the hook for the damage it causes. Why? Because we need that energy! For example, the industry-backed organization energyfromshale.org declares that “there are only two sides in the debate: those who want our oil and natural resources developed in a safe and responsible way; and those who don’t want our oil and natural gas resources developed at all.”

So it’s worth pointing out that special treatment for fracking makes a mockery of free-market principles. Pro-fracking politicians claim to be against subsidies, yet letting an industry impose costs without paying compensation is in effect a huge subsidy. They say they oppose having the government “pick winners,” yet they demand special treatment for this industry precisely because they claim it will be a winner.

And now for something completely different: the success story you haven’t heard about.

These days, mention solar power and you’ll probably hear cries of “Solyndra!” Republicans have tried to make the failed solar panel company both a symbol of government waste — although claims of a major scandal are nonsense — and a stick with which to beat renewable energy.

But Solyndra’s failure was actually caused by technological success: the price of solar panels is dropping fast, and Solyndra couldn’t keep up with the competition. In fact, progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year.

This has already led to rapid growth in solar installations, but even more change may be just around the corner. If the downward trend continues — and if anything it seems to be accelerating — we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.

And if we priced coal-fired power right, taking into account the huge health and other costs it imposes, it’s likely that we would already have passed that tipping point.

But will our political system delay the energy transformation now within reach?

Let’s face it: a large part of our political class, including essentially the entire G.O.P., is deeply invested in an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels, and actively hostile to alternatives. This political class will do everything it can to ensure subsidies for the extraction and use of fossil fuels, directly with taxpayers’ money and indirectly by letting the industry off the hook for environmental costs, while ridiculing technologies like solar.

So what you need to know is that nothing you hear from these people is true. Fracking is not a dream come true; solar is now cost-effective. Here comes the sun, if we’re willing to let it in.

Ohio Turns Back a Law Limiting Unions’ Rights

Ohio Turns Back a Law Limiting Unions’ Rights

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A year after Republicans swept legislatures across the country, voters in Ohio delivered their verdict Tuesday on a centerpiece of the conservative legislative agenda, striking down a law that restricted public workers’ rights to bargain collectively.

The landslide vote to repeal the bill — 62 percent to 38 percent, according to preliminary results from Ohio’s secretary of state — was a slap to Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican who had championed the law as a tool for cities to cut costs. The bill passed in March on a wave of enthusiasm among Republicans fresh from victories. A similar bill also passed in Wisconsin.

Across the country, several other Republican-backed measures were also dealt setbacks, including a crackdown on voting rights in Maine.

In Mississippi, voters rejected an amendment to the State Constitution that would have banned virtually all abortions and some forms of birth control by declaring a fertilized human egg to be a legal person.

The Ohio vote gave a new lease on life to public sector labor unions in Ohio, which had been under tremendous pressure to get the bill repealed. Failure would have brought not only the loss of most of their bargaining rights, including the right to strike, but would also have called into question what had long been their central strength — their ability to organize and deliver votes.

Labor leaders said their victory contained an important message for Republicans.

“Attacking education and other public employees is not at all what the public wants to see,” said Karen M. White, political director of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest public sector union. “It should resonate with politicians that they’ve gone too far.”

At a news conference Tuesday night, Mr. Kasich congratulated the winners and said he would assess the situation before proposing any new legislation. “It’s time to pause,” he said. “The people have spoken clearly.”

When asked about the people’s message, Mr. Kasich said, “They might have said it was too much too soon.”

Labor’s victory in this important swing state comes a year before the presidential election, and policy makers and political strategists will be studying ballot initiatives for clues to voter sentiment in 2012.

The election in Ohio provided an opportunity for the president’s network of supporters, Obama for America, to test its organizational ability and revive its enthusiasm after a bleak year for Democratic activists. Volunteers for the president’s re-election campaign fanned out across the state for weeks, urging voters to stand against the new law limiting collective bargaining.

The issue did not break entirely along party lines. The supporters of the law did not receive as much outside help, with the Republican presidential primary campaign in full swing.

Even when Mitt Romney, a leading candidate, visited Ohio recently, he said he was not sure where he stood on the issue. A day later, he said he stood against the labor unions.

Some analysts cautioned against reading too much into the result as a predictor for 2012. The law has been highly controversial in Ohio, even among groups like firefighters and police officers that traditionally vote Republican, and a vote cast against the law does not translate directly to a vote for President Obama.

“This is not a purely partisan issue,” said Gene Beaupre, a political science professor at Xavier University. “It has merits on its substance.”

The real question, he said, will be how independents voted. In a warning to Democrats, a largely symbolic measure against Mr. Obama’s health care law was among the ballot initiatives that passed.

Republicans who watched the campaign on the union measure said it was doomed from the start. The law was a frontal assault on one of the most sacred principles for Democrats: the right of organized labor to collectively bargain. Defeating the repeal campaign would have required near-universal Republican support, which was not there because some registered Republicans opposed the law.

“This really is a core value, and the bill was out of step with that value,” said one Republican strategist, who asked to remain anonymous because he did not want to be seen as criticizing his party’s position.

Labor fought harder, observers said, because its stakes were higher. We Are Ohio, the main group that opposed the law, poured about $30 million into the campaign, said Melissa Fazekas, the group’s spokeswoman, and had about 17,000 volunteers out over the weekend knocking on doors to persuade residents to go out and vote. The main group supporting the bill, Building a Better Ohio, said it spent just under $8 million.

“What we were actually fighting for was our livelihood,” said Monty Blanton, a retired state employee and union worker who said he spent 14 hours a day knocking on doors in southeast Ohio in the last month. “We’ve been to places you had to get to with a four-wheel drive.”

Labor organizers also had the advantage of appealing to a current of national disgust.

“Who are you going to trust, the politician who is more worried about whether his hair is parted correctly, or the firefighter and policeman in your neighborhood?” said Jim Gilbert, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Columbus.

It is unclear whether the episode will cause Republicans to suffer at the ballot box next year. Bill Capretta, a registered Republican and a retired police officer in Columbus, said that while he did not think he would vote for Mr. Obama, whose health care law he opposes, he was frustrated with Republicans for blocking the president’s efforts.

“When you just say ‘No, no, no’ because you want this guy to be a one-term president, I have a problem with that,” he said.

Debunking the Iran "Terror Plot"

Debunking the Iran "Terror Plot"

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At a press conference on October 11, the Obama administration unveiled a spectacular charge against the government of Iran: The Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, right in Washington, DC, in a place where large numbers of innocent bystanders could have been killed. High-level officials of the Qods Force were said to be involved, the only question being how far up in the Iranian government the complicity went.

The US tale of the Iranian plot was greeted with unusual skepticism on the part of Iran specialists and independent policy analysts, and even elements of the mainstream media. The critics observed that the alleged assassination scheme was not in Iran’s interest, and that it bore scant resemblance to past operations attributed to the foreign special operations branch of Iranian intelligence. The Qods Force, it was widely believed, would not send a person like Iranian-American used car dealer Manssor Arbabsiar, known to friends in Corpus Christi, Texas as forgetful and disorganized, to hire the hit squad for such a sensitive covert action.

But administration officials claimed they had hard evidence to back up the charge. They cited a 21-page deposition by a supervising FBI agent in the “amended criminal complaint” filed against Arbabsiar and an accomplice who remains at large, Gholam Shakuri. [1] It was all there, the officials insisted: several meetings between Arbabsiar and a man he thought was a member of a leading Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas, with a reputation for cold-blooded killing; incriminating statements, all secretly recorded, by Arbabsiar and Shakuri, his alleged handler in Tehran; and finally, Arbabsiar’s confession after his arrest, which clearly implicates Qods Force agents in a plan to murder a foreign diplomat on US soil.

A close analysis of the FBI deposition reveals, however, that independent evidence for the charge that Arbabsiar was sent by the Qods Force on a mission to arrange for the assassination of Jubeir is lacking. The FBI account is full of holes and contradictions, moreover. The document gives good reason to doubt that Arbabsiar and his confederates in Iran had the intention of assassinating Jubeir, and to believe instead that the FBI hatched the plot as part of a sting operation.

The Case of the Missing Quotes

The FBI account suggests that, from the inaugural meetings between Arbabsiar and his supposed Los Zetas contact, a Drug Enforcement Agency informant, Arbabsiar was advocating a terrorist strike against the Saudi embassy. The government narrative states that, in the very first meeting on May 24, Arbabsiar asked the informant about his “knowledge, if any, with respect to explosives” and said he was interested in “among other things, attacking an embassy of Saudi Arabia.” It also notes that in the meetings prior to July 14, the DEA informant “had reported that he and Arbabsiar had discussed the possibility of attacks on a number of other targets,” including “foreign government facilities associated with Saudi Arabia and with another country,” located “within and outside the United States.”

But the allegations that the Iranian-American used car salesman wanted to “attack” the Saudi embassy and other targets rest entirely upon the testimony of the DEA informant with whom he was meeting. The informant is a drug dealer who had been indicted for a narcotics violation in a US state but had the charges dropped “in exchange for cooperation in various drug investigations,” according to the FBI account. The informant is not an independent source of information, but someone paid to help pursue FBI objectives.

The most suspicious aspect of the administration’s case, in fact, is the complete absence of any direct quote from Arbabsiar suggesting interest in, much less advocacy of, assassinating the Saudi ambassador or carrying out other attacks in a series of meetings with the DEA informant between June 23 and July 14. The deposition does not even indicate how many times the two actually met during those three weeks, suggesting that the number was substantial, and that the lack of primary evidence from those meetings is a sensitive issue. And although the FBI account specifies that the July 14 and 17 meetings were recorded “at the direction of law enforcement agents,” it is carefully ambiguous about whether or not the earlier meetings were recorded.

The lack of quotations is a crucial problem for the official case for a simple reason: If Arbabsiar had said anything even hinting in the May 24 meeting or in a subsequent meeting at the desire to mount a terrorist attack, it would have triggered the immediate involvement of the FBI’s National Security Branch and its counter-terrorism division. The FBI would then have instructed the DEA informant to record all of the meetings with Arbabsiar, as is standard practice in such cases, according to a former FBI official interviewed for this article. And that would mean that those meetings were indeed recorded.

The fact that the FBI account does not include a single quotation from Arbabsiar in the June 23-July 14 meetings means either that Arbabsiar did not say anything that raised such alarms at the FBI or that he was saying something sufficiently different from what is now claimed that the administration chooses not to quote from it. In either case, the lack of such quotes further suggests that it was not Arbabsiar, but the DEA informant, acting as part of an FBI sting operation, who pushed the idea of assassinating Jubeir. The most likely explanation is that Arbabsiar was suggesting surveillance of targets that could be hit if Iran were to be attacked by Israel with Saudi connivance.

“The Saudi Arabia” and the $100,000

The July 14 meeting between Arbabsiar and the DEA informant is the first from which the criminal complaint offers actual quotations from the secretly recorded conversation. The FBI’s retelling supplies selected bits of conversation -- mostly from the informant -- aimed at portraying the meeting as revolving around the assassination plot. But when carefully studied, the account reveals a different story.

The quotations attributed to the DEA informant suggest that he was under orders to get a response from Arbabsiar that could be interpreted as assent to an assassination plot. For example, the informant tells Arbabsiar, “You just want the, the main guy.” There is no quoted response from the car dealer. Instead, the FBI narrative simply asserts that Arbabsiar “confirmed that he just wanted the ‘ambassador.’” At the end of the meeting, the informant declares, “We’re gonna start doing the guy.” But again, no response from Arbabsiar is quoted.

Two statements by the informant appear on their face to relate to a broader set of Saudi targets than Adel al-Jubeir. The informant tells Arbabsiar that he would need “at least four guys” and would “take the one point five for the Saudi Arabia.” The FBI agent who signed the deposition explains, “I understand this to mean that he would need to use four men to assassinate the Ambassador and that the cost to Arbabsiar of the assassination would be $1.5 million.” But, apart from the agent’s surmise, there is no hint that either cited phrase referred to a proposal to assassinate the ambassador. Given that there had already been discussion of multiple Saudi targets, as well as those of an unnamed third country (probably Israel), it seems more reasonable to interpret the words “the Saudi Arabia” to refer to a set of missions relating to Saudi Arabia in order to distinguish them from the other target list.

Then the informant repeats the same wording, telling Arbabsiar he would “go ahead and work on the Saudi Arabia, get all the information that we can.” This language does not show that Arbabsiar proposed the killing of Jubeir, much less approved it. And the FBI narrative states that the Iranian-American “agreed that the assassination of the Ambassador should be handled first.” Again, that curious wording does not assert that Arbabsiar said an assassination should be carried out first, but suggests he was agreeing that the subject should be discussed first.

The absence of any quote from Arbabsiar about an assassination plot, combined with the multiple ambiguities surrounding the statements attributed to the DEA informant, suggest that the main subject of the July 14 meeting was something broader than an assassination plot, and that it was the government’s own agent who had brought up the subject of assassinating the ambassador in the meeting, rather than Arbabsiar.

The government reconstruction of the July 14 meeting also introduces the keystone of the Obama administration’s public case: $100,000 that was to be transferred to a bank account that the DEA informant said he would make known to Arbabsiar. The FBI deposition asserts repeatedly that whenever Arbabsiar or the DEA informant mention the $100,000, they are talking about a “down payment” on the assassination. But the document contains no statement from either of them linking that $100,000 to any assassination plan. In fact, it provides details suggesting that the $100,000 could not have been linked to such a plan.

The FBI deposition states that the informant and Arbabsiar “discussed how Arbabsiar would pay [the informant],” but offers no statement from either individual even mentioning a “payment,” or any reason for transferring the money to a bank account. Furthermore, it does not actually claim that Arbabsiar made any commitment to any action against Jubeir at either the July 14 or 17 meetings. And when the informant is quoted in the July 17 meeting as saying, “I don’t know exactly what your cousin wants me to do,” it appears to be an acknowledgement that he had gotten no indication prior to July 17 that Arbabsiar’s Tehran interlocutors wanted the Saudi ambassador dead. The deposition does not even claim that Arbabsiar’s supposed handlers had approved a plan to kill Jubeir until after the Iranian-American returned to his native country on July 20.

Nevertheless, Arbabsiar is quoted telling the informant on July 14 that the full $100,000 had already been collected in cash at the home of “a certain individual.” Preparations for the transfer of the $100,000 had thus commenced well before the assassination plot allegedly got the green light.

The amount of $100,000 does not even appear credible as a “down payment” on a job that the FBI account says was to have cost a total of $1.5 million. It would represent a mere 6 percent of the full price. Bearing in mind that the DEA informant was supposed to be representing the demand of a ruthlessly profit-motivated Los Zetas drug cartel for a high-stakes political assassination well outside its purview, 6 percent of the total would represent far too little for a “down payment.”

The $100,000 wire transfer must have been related to an understanding that had been reached on something other than the assassination plan. Yet it has been cited by the administration and reported by news media as proof of the plot -- and key evidence of Iran’s complicity therein. [2]

The Qods Force Connection

The FBI account of the July 17 meeting shows the DEA informant leading Arbabsiar into a statement of support for an assassination. The informant, obviously following an FBI script, says, “I don’t know what exactly your cousin wants me to do.” But the deposition notes “further conversation” following that invitation for a clear position on a proposal coming from the informant, indicating that what Arbabsiar was saying did not support the administration’s allegation that assassination plot was coming from Tehran.

After the FBI evidently sought again to get the straightforward answer it was seeking, however, Arbabsiar is quoted as saying: “He wants you to kill this guy.” The informant then presents a fanciful plan to bomb an imaginary restaurant in Washington where Arbabsiar was told the Saudi ambassador liked to dine twice a week and where many “like, American people” would be present. “You want me to do it outside or in the restaurant?” asks the informant, to which question the Iranian-American replies, “Doesn’t matter how you do it.” At another point in the conversation, Arbabsiar goes further, saying, “They want that guy done. If the hundred go with him, fuck ‘em.”

These statements appear at first blush to be conclusive evidence that Arbabsiar and his Iranian overseers were contracting for the assassination of Jubeir, regardless of lives lost. But there are two crucial questions that the FBI account leaves unanswered: Was Arbabsiar speaking on behalf of the Qods Force or some element of it? And if he was, was he talking about a plan that was to go into effect as soon as possible or was it understood that they were talking about a contingency plan that would only be carried out under specific circumstances?

The deposition includes several instances of Arbabsiar’s bragging about a cousin who is a general, out of uniform and involved in covert external operations, including in Iraq -- clearly implying that he belongs to the Qods Force. Arbabsiar is said to have claimed that the cousin and another Iranian official gave him funds for his contacts with the drug cartel. “I got the money coming,” he says. Subsequently, in one of the most extensive quotations from the recorded conversations, Arbabsiar says, “This is politics, so these people they pay this government…he’s got the, got the government behind him…he’s not paying from his pocket.” The FBI narrative identifies the person referred to here as Arbabsiar’s cousin, a Qods Force officer later named as Abdul Reza Shahlai, but again, there is not a single direct quotation backing the claim. And the reference to “these people” who “pay this government” suggests that “he” is connected to a group with illicit financial ties to government officials.

This excerpt could be particularly significant in light of press reports quoting a US law enforcement official saying that Arbabsiar had offered “tons of opium” to the drug cartel and that he and the informant had discussed what the New York Times called a “side deal” on the Iranian-held narcotics. [3] If these reports are accurate, it seems possible that Arbabsiar approached Los Zetas on behalf of Iranians who control a portion of the opium being smuggled through Iran from Afghanistan, while seeking to impress the drug cartel operative with his claim to have close ties to the Qods Force through Shahlai. But if the DEA informant then pressed him to authenticate his Qods Force connection, he may have begun discussing covert operations against Iran’s enemies in North America.

The only alleged evidence that Arbabsiar was speaking for Shahlai and the Qods Force is Arbabsiar’s own confession, summarized in the criminal complaint. But, at minimum, that testimony was provided after he had been arrested and had a strong interest in telling the FBI what it wanted to hear.

The deposition makes much of a series of three phone conversations on October 4, 5 and 7 between Arbabsiar and someone who Arbabsiar tells his FBI handlers is Gholam Shakuri, presenting them as confirmation of the involvement of Qods Force officers in the assassination scheme. But the FBI apparently had no way of ascertaining whether the person to whom Arababsiar was talking was actually Shakuri. After the October 4 call, for example, the FBI account merely records that Arbabsiar “indicated that the person he was speaking with was Shakuri.”

On their face, moreover, these conversations prove nothing. In the first of the three calls, the person at the other end of the line, whom Arbabsiar identifies to his FBI contact as Shakuri but whose identity is not otherwise established, asks, “What news…what did you do about the building?” The FBI agent again suggests, “based on my training, experience and participation in this investigation,” that these queries were a “reference to the plot to murder the Ambassador and a question about its status.”

But Arbabsiar is said to have claimed in his confession that he was instructed by Shakuri to use the code word “Chevrolet” to refer to the plot to kill the ambassador. In a second recorded conversation, Arbabsiar immediately says, “I wanted to tell you the Chevrolet is ready, it’s ready, uh, to be done. I should continue, right?” After further exchange, the man purported to be “Shakuri” says, “So buy it, buy it.” Despite the obvious invocation of a code word, it remains unclear what Arbabsiar was to “buy.” “Chevrolet” could actually have been a reference to either a drug-related deal or a generic plan having to do with Saudi and other targets.

In a third recorded conversation on October 7, both Arbabsiar and “Shakuri” refer to a demand by a purported cartel figure for another $50,000 on top of the original $100,000 transferred by wire earlier. But there is no other evidence of such a demand. It appears to be a mere device of the FBI to get “Shakuri” on record as talking about the $100,000. And here it should be recalled that the account in the deposition shows that the transfer of the $100,000 had been agreed on before any indication of agreement on a plan to kill the ambassador.

The invocation of a fictional demand for $50,000, along with the dramatic difference between the first conversation and the second and third conversations, suggests yet another possibility: The second and third conversations were set up in advance by Arbabsiar to provide a transcript to bolster the administration’s case.

Terrorist Plot or Deterrence Strategy?

Even if Qods Forces officials indeed directed Arbabsiar to contact the Los Zetas cartel, it cannot be assumed that they intended to carry out one or more terrorist attacks in the United States. The killing of a foreign ambassador in Washington (not to speak of additional attacks on Saudi and Israeli buildings), if linked to Iran, would invite swift and massive US military retaliation. If, on the other hand, the Qods Force men instructed Arbabsiar to conduct surveillance of those targets and prepare contingency plans for hitting them if Iran were attacked, the whole story begins to make more sense.

Iran lacks the conventional means to deter attack by a powerful adversary. In its decades-long standoffs with the United States and Israel, amidst recurrent talk of “preemptive” strikes by those powers, Iran has relied on threats of proxy retaliation against US and allied state targets in the Middle East. [4] The Iranian military support for Lebanon’s Hizballah, in particular, is widely recognized as prompted primarily by Iran’s need to deter US and Israeli attack. [5]

In one case in 1994-1995, Saudi Arabian Shi‘i militants carried out surveillance of potential US military and diplomatic targets in Saudi Arabia, in a way that was quickly noticed by US and Saudi intelligence. [6] Although the consensus among US intelligence analysts was that Iran was preparing for a terrorist attack, Ronald Neumann, then the State Department’s intelligence officer for Iran and Iraq, noted that Iran had done the same thing whenever US-Iranian tensions had risen. He suggested that Iran could be using the surveillance for deterrence, to let Washington know that its interests in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere would be in danger if Iran were attacked. [7]

Unfortunately for Iran’s deterrent strategy, however, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was also carrying out surveillance of US bases in Saudi Arabia, and in November 1995 and again in June 1996, that group bombed two facilities housing US servicemen. The bombing of Khobar Towers in June 1996, which killed 19 US soldiers and one Saudi Arabian, was blamed by the Clinton administration’s FBI and CIA leadership on Iranian-sponsored Shi‘a from Saudi Arabia, with prodding from Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, despite the fact that bin Laden claimed responsibility not once but twice, in interviews with the London-based newspaper, al-Quds al-‘Arabi. [8]

Hani al-Sayigh, one of the Saudi Arabian Shi‘a accused by the Saudi and US governments of conspiring to attack the Khobar Towers, admitted to Assistant Attorney General Eric Dubelier, who interviewed him at a Canadian detention facility in May 1997, that he had participated in the surveillance of US military targets in Saudi Arabia on behalf of Iranian intelligence. But, according to the FBI report on the interview, al-Sayigh insisted that Iran had never intended to attack any of those sites unless it was first attacked by the United States. And when Dubelier asked a question later in the interview that was based on the premise that the surveillance effort was preparation for a terrorist attack, al-Sayigh corrected him. [9]

With threats of an Israeli or US bombing attack on Iran, with Saudi complicity, mounting since the mid-2000s, a similar campaign of surveillance of Saudi and Israeli targets in North America would fit the framework of what the Pentagon has called Iran’s “asymmetric warfare doctrine.” If Arbabsiar spoke of such a campaign in his initial meeting with the DEA informant, he certainly would have piqued the interest of FBI counter-terrorism personnel. And this scenario would also explain why the series of meetings in late June and the first half of July did not produce a single statement by Arbabsiar that the administration could quote to advance its case that the Iranian-American was interested in assassinating Adel al-Jubeir or carrying out other acts of terrorism.

A plan to conduct surveillance and be ready to act on contingency plans would also explain why someone as lacking in relevant experience and skills as Arbabsiar might have been acceptable to the Qods Force. Not only would the mission not have required absolute secrecy; it would have been based on the assumption that the surveillance would become known to US intelligence relatively quickly, as did the monitoring of US targets in Saudi Arabia in 1994-1995.

The Qods Force officials were certainly well aware that the Drug Enforcement Agency had penetrated various Mexican drug cartels, in some cases even at the very top level. US court proceedings involving Mexican drug traffickers who were highly placed in the Sinaloa drug cartel between 2009 and early 2011 reveal that the US made deals with leaders of the cartel to report what they knew about rival cartel operations in return for a hands-off approach to their drug trafficking. [10] Further underlining the degree to which the cartels were honeycombed with people on the US payroll, the DEA informant in this case was not merely posing as a drug trafficker but is reportedly an actual associate of Los Zetas with access to its upper echelons, who has been given immunity from prosecution to cooperate with the DEA. [11]

When Did Arbabsiar Become Part of the Sting?

The Obama administration’s account of the alleged Iranian plot has Arbabsiar suddenly changing from terrorist conspirator to active collaborator with the FBI upon his September 29 arrest at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. He is said to have provided a confession immediately upon being apprehended, after waiving his right to a lawyer, and then to have waived that right repeatedly again while being interviewed by the FBI. Then Arbabsiar cooperated in making the series of secretly recorded phone calls to someone he identified as Shakuri.

For someone facing such serious charges to provide the details with which to make the case against him, while renouncing benefit of counsel, is odd, to say the least. The official story raises questions not only about what agreement was reached between Arbabsiar and the FBI to ensure his cooperation but about when that agreement was reached.

One clue that Arbabsiar was brought into the sting operation well before his arrest is the DEA informant’s demand in a September 20 phone conversation with Arbabsiar in Tehran that he either come up with half the $1.5 million total fee or come to Mexico to be the guarantee that the full amount would be paid.

Yet the FBI account of that conversation shows Arbabsiar telling the informant, without even consulting with his contacts in Tehran, “I’m gonna go over there [in] two [or] three days.” Later in the same evening, he calls back to ask how long he would need to remain in Mexico. Even if Arbabsiar were as feckless as some reports have suggested, he would certainly not have agreed so readily to put his fate in the hands of the murderous Los Zetas cartel -- unless he knew that he was not really in danger, because the US government would intercept him and bring him to the United States. Making the episode even stranger, Arbabsiar’s confession claims that when he told Shakuri about the purported Los Zetas demand, Shakuri refused to provide any more money to the cartel, advised him against going to Mexico and warned him that if he did so, he would be on his own.

Further supporting the conclusion that Arbabsiar had become part of the sting operation before his arrest is the fact there was no reason for the FBI to pose the demand -- through the DEA informant -- for more money or Arbabsiar’s presence in Mexico except to provide an excuse to get him out of Iran, so he could provide a full confession implicating the Qods Force and be the centerpiece of the case against Iran.

The larger aim of the FBI sting operation, which ABC News has reported was dubbed Operation Red Coalition, was clearly to link the alleged assassination plot to Qods Force officers. The logical moment for the FBI to have recruited the Iranian-American would have been right after the FBI recorded him talking about wiring money to the bank account and casually approving the idea of bombing a restaurant and before his planned departure from Mexico for Iran. The only way to ensure that Arbabsiar would come back, of course, would be to offer him a substantial amount of money to serve as an informant for the FBI during his stay in Iran, which he would receive only upon returning. If Arbabsiar had already been enlisted, of course, it would also mean the keystone of the case -- the wiring of $100,000 to a secret FBI bank account -- was a part of the FBI sting.

FBI Trickery in Terrorism Cases

FBI deceit in constructing a case for an Iranian terror plot should come as no surprise, given its record of domestic terrorism prosecutions based on sting operations involving entrapment and skullduggery. Central to these stings has been the creation of fictional terrorist plots by the FBI itself. In 2006 the “Gonzales Guidelines” for the use of FBI informants removed previous prohibitions on actions to “initiate a plan or strategy to commit a federal, state or local offense.” [12]

Perhaps the most notorious of all these domestic terrorism sting operations is the case in which Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, leaders of their Albany, New York mosque, were sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for allegedly laundering profits from the sale of a shoulder-launched missile for a Pakistani militant group that was planning to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat in New York City.

In fact, there was no such terrorist plot, and the alleged crime was the result of an elaborate FBI scam directed against two innocent men. [13] It began when an FBI informant pretending to be a Pakistani businessman insinuated himself into Hossain’s life and extended him a $50,000 loan for his pizza parlor. Only months after the informant had begun loaning the money did he show Hossain a shoulder-launched missile, and suggest that he was also selling arms to his “Muslim brothers.” It was a devious form of entrapment; the prosecutors later argued that Hossain should have known the loan could have come from money made in the sale of weapons to terrorists and was therefore guilty of money laundering.

The FBI approach to entrapping Hossain’s friend Aref was even more underhanded. Aref was never even made aware of the missile or the phony story of the illegal arms sale. But on one occasion, when he was present to witness the transfer of loan money, what was later said to have been the missile’s trigger system was left on a table in the room. Prosecutors then argued the theory that Aref had seen the trigger, which looks much like a staple gun, and thus had become part of a conspiracy to “assist in money laundering.”

Many other domestic terrorism cases have involved deceptive tactics and economic inducements deployed by the FBI to involve American Muslims in fictional terrorist plots. The Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University’s Law School found more than 20 terrorism cases that involved some combination of “paid informants, selection of investigation based on perceived religious identity, [and] a plot that was created by the government.” [14] This history makes it clear that the Justice Department and FBI are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to fabricate terrorism cases against targeted individuals, and that misrepresenting these individuals’ intentions and actual behavior has long been standard practice. The trickery and deceit in past “counter-terrorism” sting operations provides further reason to question the veracity of the Obama administration’s allegations in the bizarre case of Manssor Arbabsiar.

Endnotes

[1] The full text of the “amended criminal complaint” is online at: http://www.jdsupra.com/post/documentViewer.aspx?fid=a334ea94-9f4f-4364-8...
[2] See New York Times, October 12, 2011 and Reuters, October 12, 2011.
[3] See New York Times, October 12, 2011 and Bloomberg, October 12, 2011.
[4] For an official US recognition of Iran’s “assymetric warfare doctrine” as a tool of deterrence of “any would-be invader,” see Department of Defense, Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran, April 2010, p. 1.
[5] See, for example, Michael Young, “Another Israel-Hezbollah War?” Middle East Security at Harvard, National Security Study Program, February 28, 2008: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mesh/2008/02/another_israel_hezbollah_war/
[6] See Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1997 and Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 276.
[7] Gareth Porter, “US Officials Leaked a False Story Blaming Iran,” Inter Press Service, June 24, 2009.
[8] Gareth Porter, “FBI Ignored Compelling Evidence of Bin Laden Role,” Inter Press Service, June 25, 2009.
[9] Gareth Porter, “US May Have Concealed Deterrent Aim of Iranian Plan,” Inter Press Service, October 21, 2011.
[10] New York Times, October 24, 2011.
[11] So said ProPublica reporter Sebastian Rotella in his podcast of October 18, 2011, online at: http://www.propublica.org/podcast/item/podcast-sebastian-rotella-on-the-...
[12] Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States (New York, 2011), p. 14.
[13] This account of the case is drawn from Petra Bartosiewicz, “To Catch a Terrorist,” Harper’s (August 2011).
[14] Targeted and Entrapped, pp. 50-52, fn 17.

US Poor Now Number 49 Million, Wealth Gap Between Young and Old Reaches Record Highs

US Poor Now Number 49 Million, Wealth Gap Between Young and Old Reaches Record Highs

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Wealth disparity in America is becoming ever more prevalent, according to Census data and analysis done by Pew Research Center—and we're reaching record highs. First, new Census data from 2010 determined the amount of Americans living in poverty is up to 49.1 million—up 3 million from September's official poverty measure—meaning that 16 percent of Americans are living in poverty, with a newly raised poverty line of $24,343 for a family of two adults and two children.

Second: the wealth gap between the young and old has increased dramatically, reaching its own record highs. According to Pew analysis, households headed by those 65 or older are a whopping 47 times richer than households headed by those 35 and under. The net income of younger Americans has declined 68% since 1984, while that of older Americans has actually increased by 42%. So what's to blame? Exactly what the 99% percent are protesting: the housing bubble, bad mortgages, crippling student loans, and other disproportionate burdens placed upon the young by the country's biggest banks. CNN Money:

"Most of today's older homeowners got into the housing market long ago, at 'pre-bubble' prices," the report said. "Along with everyone else, they've been hurt by the housing market collapse of recent years, but over the long haul, most have seen their home equities rise."

"For young adults who are in the beginning stages of wealth accumulation, there has been no such luck, at least so far."

Meanwhile, the younger generation is also taking longer to enter the labor force and get married. And surging college costs are also leaving them burdened by more student loans than prior generations.


Still Fighting for Their Country, Now Veterans of Occupy

Still fighting for their country, now veterans of Occupy

From Scott Olsen in Oakland to Sgt Shamar Thomas in New York, US veterans are filling the ranks of the Occupy movement

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    Scott Olsen in uniform
    Scott Olsen (third from left) on board a military aircraft while serving as a US marine. Olsen remains in hospital after being seriously injured in an Occupy Oakland protest. Photograph: Keith Shannon

    11-11-11 is not a variant of Herman Cain's much-touted 9-9-9 tax plan, but rather the date of this year's Veterans Day. This is especially relevant, as the US has now entered its second decade of war in Afghanistan, the longest war in the nation's history. US veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are appearing more and more on the front lines – the front lines of the Occupy Wall Street protests, that is.

    Video from the Occupy Oakland march on Tuesday 25 October looks and sounds like a war zone. The sound of gunfire is nearly constant in the video. Tear-gas projectiles were being fired into the crowd when the cry of "Medic!" rang out. Civilians raced toward a fallen protester lying on his back on the pavement, mere steps from a throng of black-clad police in full riot gear, pointing guns as the civilians attempted to administer first aid.

    The fallen protester was Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old former US Marine who had served two tours of duty in Iraq. The publicly available video shows Olsen standing calmly alongside a Navy veteran holding an upraised Veterans for Peace flag. Olsen was wearing a desert camouflage jacket and sun hat, and his Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) T-shirt. He was hit in the head by a police projectile, most likely a tear-gas canister, suffering a fractured skull. As the small group of people gathered around him to help, a police officer lobbed a flash-bang grenade directly into the huddle, and it exploded.

    Four or five people lifted Olsen and raced with him away from the police line. At the hospital, he was put into an induced coma to relieve brain swelling. He is now conscious but unable to speak. He communicates using a notepad.

    I interviewed one of Olsen's friends, Aaron Hinde, also an Iraq war veteran. He was at Occupy San Francisco when he started getting a series of frenzied tweets about a vet down in Oakland. Hinde raced to the hospital to see his friend. He later told me a little about him:

    "Scott came to San Francisco about three months ago from Wisconsin, where he actually participated in the holding of the state capitol over there. Scott's probably one of the warmest, kindest guys I know. He's just one of those people who always has a smile on his face and never has anything negative to say … And he believed in the Occupy movement, because it's very obvious what's happening in this country, especially to us veterans. We've had our eyes opened by serving and going to war overseas. So, there's a small contingency of us out here, and we're all very motivated and dedicated."

    As I was covering one of the Occupy Wall Street rallies in Times Square 15 October, I saw Sgt Shamar Thomas become deeply upset. Police on horseback had moved in on protesters, only to be stopped by a horse that went down on its knees. Other officers had picked up metal barricades, squeezing the frightened crowd against steam pipes. Sgt Thomas was wearing his desert camouflage, his chest covered with medals from his combat tour in Iraq. He shouted at the police, denouncing their violent treatment of the protesters. Thomas later wrote of the incident:

    "There is an obvious problem in the country and PEACEFUL PEOPLE should be allowed to PROTEST without Brutality. I was involved in a RIOT in Rutbah, Iraq 2004 and we did NOT treat the Iraqi citizens like they are treating the unarmed civilians in our OWN Country."

    A group calling itself Veterans of the 99% has formed, and with the New York City Chapter of IVAW set 2 November as the day to march to Liberty Plaza to formally join and support the movement. Their announcement read:

    "Veterans of the 99% hope to draw attention to the ways veterans have been impacted by the economic and social issues raised by Occupy Wall Street. They hope to help make veterans' and service members' participation in this movement more visible and deliberate."

    When I stopped by Occupy Louisville in Kentucky last weekend, the first two people I met there were veterans. One of them, Gary James Johnson, told me:

    "I served in Iraq for about a year and a half. I joined the military because I thought it was my obligation to help protect this country … And right here, right now, this is another way I can help."

    Pundits predict the cold weather will crush the Occupy movement. Ask any veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq about surviving outdoors in extreme weather. And consider the sign at Liberty Plaza, held by yet another veteran: "Second time I've fought for my country. First time I've known my enemy."

Bought Justice and The Supreme Court

Bought Justice and The Supreme Court

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he Supreme Court looms over our political landscape like a giant, immovable object. Americans have traditionally respected the court's purview, believing that it serves justice, dispassionately. Yet the most controversial decision of the last twenty five years - Bush v. Gore - has profoundly shaken that sentiment. And other decisions, like the Citizens United ruling that prevented restrictions on corporation and labor outside expenditures in elections, are inviting further skepticism. Just who does the Court serve? Is this another case of Platinum Citizens getting one set of rules, and everyone else getting another set of rules? And is the Court dominated, like the rest of our government, by money? Do we have a bought Supreme Court?

This is a difficult, and troubling, question. And it doesn't have an obvious answer. One place to look is at the Citizens United decision itself. The most remarkable aspects of the court's decision-making in Citizens United is the Court's attitude towards corruption. The traditional rationale behind campaign finance restrictions is that campaign money can corrupt or create the appearance of corruption. The court found that, unless there was an explicit quid pro quo and donations were coordinated with candidates, money was not a corrupting force. If there ever were a rationale to restrict free speech in the form of campaign spending, corruption was it. But since campaign money doesn't corrupt, the Court found, the Constitution prohibits the government from regulating money in politics.

Most people believe in common sense, that if you give someone money, or spend money on someone's behalf, you will have influence over them. Excessive influence over a politician leads to corruption. Yet the Supreme Court doesn't see it this way. How did the Court come to have such odd ideas on corruption?

This goes back to the subtlety of money in our politics, and in particular, the purchase of ideas. In the 1970s, a think tank called the John Olin Foundation began promoting something called law and economics, a school of thought started at the University of Chicago that linked the incentive-based thinking of economics to legal rule-making. At the time, the ideas that led to the massive deregulatory impulses of the next three decades were first taking shape; the law and economics school was simply the legal offshoot of this well-funded pro-corporate trend. This new legal theory asserted that traditional legal concepts like equity and fairness were not as important as efficiency and incentives. And it expanded its influence quickly over law schools and courts very quickly through, well, gobs of money. According to conservative journalist John Miller, "the foundation sank more than $68 million into law and economics, and because of this it had a big impact on legal scholarship, the training of lawyers, and judicial behavior."

Over the next four decades, the Supreme Court, and the judiciary in general, became far more amenable to analyses that left out concepts like fairness. And this was not simply due to the conservatives on the courts, though they led the charge. The Supreme Court helped get rid of usury caps for credit cards, and then struck down state laws capping penalty fees. These two significant decisions - the Marquette decision in 1978 and Smiley v. Citibank in 1996 - were unanimous. Bankruptcy filings have naturally spiraled upwards. It wasn't just Congress, the regulators, or the President that deregulated our financial system, it was the Supreme Court as well. And if you want to know why bankers haven't been prosecuted for the financial crisis, well just before the crisis, the court upheld a ruling that investment bankers who knowingly structured sham transactions they knew would be used to falsify Enron's financial statements hadn't committed fraud. Last year, the court ruled for Enron ex-CEO Jeff Skilling.

Today, this concept is so embedded in the judiciary that imposing rules to allow shareholders power over corporate management is now being struck down on the grounds that it would prevent "efficiency, competition, and capital formation." Law schools now churn out lawyers who understand and believe in law and economics, who can be the Supreme Court clerks and legal functionaries to embed these arguments in every nook and cranny of our legal system. Questions of justice are now becoming questions of how to make the law serve the interests of corporations, rather than fundamental issues of liberty. Powerful groups like investment bankers and CEOs can commit unethical acts with no consequence, but more than one in every hundred American men is now incarcerated, most for low level petty violations.

Some people chalk up the Court's problems to a conservative influence on the judiciary. These people point to both Justice Sam Alito and Justice John Roberts, who both argued they would treasure Court precedent during their nomination hearings. It would be hard to find a more outrageous case of not following precedent than Citizens United; corporate money had been restricted for a century. Even more egregious is the case of Justice Clarence Thomas, whose wife took $680,000 of money from the conservative Heritage Foundation, even as he did not disclose the money as required by law on his Federal disclosure forms. Thomas has also helped raise money for the Heritage Foundation. As businessman and ethical advocate Landon Rowland observed, the greatly admired scholar Alexis de Tocqueville distinguished America from corrupt European states by its willingness to subject "the state and its rulers to ordinary courts and the common law." This is no longer the case if a Supreme Court Justice can receive family income from a conservative ideological institution, break the law and not disclose it, and then rule on issues on which that institution has weighed in.

But I think the problem is more fundamental. The bank-friendly cases occurred before these conservatives were on the Court, and they were unanimous decisions. Moreover, just looking at how Democrats responded to these Supreme Court decisions shows that the problem is bipartisan. In response to the Lily Ledbetter decision from the Court on gender-based pay discrimination, Congress passed a statute reversing the Court's mandate. This is good as far as it goes, but where is the grand theory of bringing equity and fairness back to the judicial system? Congress can't, and indeed doesn't, respond every time the court system fails to act in pursuit of justice. The breakdown is becoming so severe that banks can commit rampant foreclosure fraud against debtors and the court system, without consequence. What good is a system of justice that protects the property rights of banks, but not the property rights of anyone else?

Fundamentally, what we need is a new legal theory for the 99%, a new way of looking at corruption. The law and economics school takes a limited approach to the question of justice, but there are seeds of new ways of thinking. Another way of modeling the problem has been pioneered by law professor Zephyr Teachout, who argues there is a structural anti-corruption principle embedded in the Constitution itself in the form of a separation-of-powers. She explores how the founders drafted the Constitution as a response to corruption, and argues that judges need to consider questions of corruption as a Constitutional principle. Other young scholars are remaking our intellectual landscape - telecommunications and cyberdefense specialist Marvin Ammori argues that the First Amendment is a design principle. Public space, he says, is essential for the First Amendment to operate, and judges need to consider that concept. As we see protesters camped out around the country and tussling with public officials over how they can showcase grievances, this seems far more important than more mundane First Amendment questions that typically deal with questions of flag-burning.

The question of money and the courts is not a simple one. Money does corrupt, but in the case of the courts, it isn't illegal to fund intellectual research, nor should it be. What are needed are new ideas and new legal theories to counter the ones that failed. As we watch the torrents of money pour into our politics, it's becoming increasingly impossible to believe that our national institutions are designed to do anything but protect the interest of a very narrow slice of the population. The Supreme Court's power rests on a tradition of integrity and a belief that it will be just in its use of its power to interpret the law. It's based on a belief that the Court's interests are aligned with the rest of us, that we get the choice of pursuing justice when harmed. As this frays, the Court's power will fray as well. This is in no one's interest. We need a system of justice, but a system of justice that serves all of us.