Sunday, January 8, 2012

5 Things You Should Know About the FBI's Massive New Biometric Database

5 Things You Should Know About the FBI's Massive New Biometric Database

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The FBI claims that their fingerprint database (IAFIS) is the "largest biometric database in the world," containing records for over a hundred million people. But that's nothing compared to the agency's plans for Next Generation Identification (NGI), a massive, billion-dollar upgrade that will hold iris scans, photos searchable with face recognition technology, palm prints, and measures of gait and voice recordings alongside records of fingerprints, scars, and tattoos.

Ambitions for the final product are candidly spelled out in an agency report: "The FBI recognizes a need to collect as much biometric data as possible within information technology systems, and to make this information accessible to all levels of law enforcement, including International agencies." (A stack of documents related to NGI was obtained by the Center for Constitutional Rights and others after a FOIA lawsuit.)

It'll be "Bigger -- Better -- Faster," the FBI brags on their Web site. Unsurprisingly, civil libertarians have concerns about the privacy ramifications of a bigger, better, faster way to track Americans using their body parts.

"NGI will expand the type and breadth of information FBI keeps on all of us," says Sunita Patel of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "There should be a balance between gathering information for law enforcement, and gathering information for its own sake."

Here are 5 things you should probably know about NGI:

1. Face Recognition

This month, the FBI is giving police departments in 4 states access to face recognition technology that lets them search the agency's mugshot database with only an image of a face. Police can repay the favor by feeding the FBI mugshots they collect from local arrests, bulking up the agency's database with images of more and more people.

The face recognition pilot program is supposed to expand to police departments across the country by 2014. When it's fully operational, the FBI expects its database to contain as many records of faces as there are fingerprints in the current database -- about 70 million, reports Nextgov.com. The agency's optimism seems warranted. If most local police departments are agreeable about information-sharing NGI can vacuum up images from all over the country.

The problem with that, civil libertarians point out, is that anyone's picture can end up in the database, regardless of whether or not they've committed a crime. Mug shots get snapped when people are arrested, and unlike a fingerprint -- which requires either arrest or consent to a background check -- a face could potentially be captured and fed into a database from anywhere.

"Anybody walking around could potentially be entered," Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells AlterNet. "Just the fact that those images can be taken surreptitiously raises concerns. If someone takes your fingerprints, you know. But in the face recognition context, it's possible for law enforcement to collect that data without knowledge." The millions of private and public security cameras all over the country would certainly provide a fruitful source for images, Lynch points out.

Going out in public naturally entails the risk that someone will see what you're doing or take your picture. Law enforcement officials angling for looser surveillance rules often deploy the argument that what people do in public is inherently not private. (It's also been used in recent debates over whether it's legal for police to put a GPS tracking device on someone's car without a warrant.) But privacy advocates counter that modern surveillance technology goes so far beyond the human eye, which obviously has neither the capacity to track someone's location for days (GPS) or store their image in a database (video surveillance, face recognition) that traditional distinctions between public and private don't really apply.

An agency powerpoint presented at a 2011 biometrics conference outlines some of the sophisticated technology in the FBI's face recognition initiatives. There's software that distinguishes between twins; 3-D face capture that expands way beyond frontal, two-dimensional mugshots; face-aging software; and automated face detection in video. The report also says agencies can ID individuals in "public datasets," which privacy advocates worry could potentially include social media like Facebook.

Meanwhile, existing laws are rarely up to speed with galloping technological advances in surveillance, say privacy advocates. At this point, "You just have to rely on law enforcement to do the right thing," Lynch says.

2. Iris Scans

Iris-scanning technology is the centerpiece of the second-to-last stage in the roll-out of NGI (scheduled for sometime before 2014). Iris scans offer up several advantages to law enforcement, both in terms of identifying people and fattening up databases.

The pattern of an iris is so unique it can distinguish twins, and it allegedly stays the same throughout a person's life. Like facial recognition, iris scans cut out the part where someone has to be arrested or convicted of a crime for law enforcement to grab a record of their biometric data.

"This capability has the potential to benefit law enforcement by requiring less interaction with subjects and will allow quicker acquisition," reads a CJIS report to the White House Domestic Policy Council.

In fact, being in the same place as a police officer equipped with a mobile iris-scanning device is all it takes. Last fall, police departments across the country got access to the MORIS device, a contraption attached to an iPhone that lets police collect digital fingerprints, run face recognition and take iris scans. (Over the summer, the FBI also starting passing out mobile devices to local law enforcement that lets them collect fingerprints digitally at the scene, according to Government Computer News.)

3. Rap-Back System

A lot of the action in the FBI's fingerprint database is in background checks for job applicants applying to industries that vet for criminal history, like taking care of the elderly or children, hospital work, and strangely, being a horse jockey in Michigan. As Cari Athens, writing for the Michigan Telecommunications and Law Review points out, if a job applicant checks out, the FBI either destroys the prints or returns them to the employer. But that's no fun if the goal is to collect vast amounts of biometric data!

Through the "Rap-Back" system, the FBI will offer employers another option: the agency is willing to keep the fingerprints in order to alert the employer if their new hire has run-ins with the law at any point in the future.

"The Rap-Back Service will provide authorized users the capability to receive notification of criminal and, in limited cases, civil activity of enrolled individuals that occurs after the initial processing and retention of criminal or civil fingerprint transactions," reads the FBI site.

4. Data Sharing Between Agencies

The roll-out of NGI advances another goal: breaking down barriers between databases operated by different agencies. One of the directives of the billion-dollar project is to grease information swapping between the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Defense. The DOJ and DHS have worked toward "interoperatibility" between their databases for years. In 2009, the Department of Defense and DOJ also signed on to an agreement to share biometric information.

All of these agencies have been busy ramping up their collection of data. The Department of Defense's ABIS database has archived fingerprints, images of faces, iris scans, and palm prints in Iraq and Afghanistan and have started collecting voice recordings. They claim to have 5.1 million records, with 49 percent coming from Iraq, but efforts in Afghanistan are ramping up, according to a DoD powerpoint. (Biometric information gathered in Iraq will not be relinquished with our pull-out, as Spencer Ackerman reported.) The Department of Homeland Security biometric database (IDENT) grabs the fingerprints and a photo (searchable with facial recognition) of visitors to the US through a program called US-Visit. Through the Secure-Communities program, meant to reveal the immigration status of people booked in local jails, (more on that below) both IDENT and the FBI collected biometric information from local law enforcement.

A DHS powerpoint about Secure Communities promises that "Under NGI, law enforcement agencies will have the option to search multiple repositories." FBI reports detail how NGI will promote smoother swapping of more and more detailed biometric information: "NGI will increase information processing and sharing needs of the more than 18,000 local, state, federal, and international agencies who are our customers." It's not clear which international agencies will be able to tap into NGI.

The advantages of collaboration are clear, but it's not without some potentially nasty consequences. When that information includes private identifying data, like the unique pattern of an iris, fingerprint or face , civil liberties advocates see likely privacy breaches.

"With more people having access to data, you don't know where data is going, who's using it against you." says EFF's Lynch. "Particularly when you're talking about surreptitious collection like facial recognition, the government has the ability to track you wherever you go. Data sharing between agencies presents the possibility for constant surveillance."

Sunita Patel points out that cases of mistaken identity can be infinitely complicated when the information flows through multiple government agencies. If you're mistakenly flagged by one agency, she says, how would you go about scrubbing the false record whenever your fingerprint or Iris scan gets pinged by a different one?

5. NGI and Secure Communities (S-Comm)

One recent test run in interagency data-sharing has not gone particularly well: Secure Communities, a DHS program that lets local law enforcement officials run the fingerprints of people booked in jails against the IDENT database to check their immigration status and tip off ICE to undocumented immigrants.

Like many policies targeting America's immigrant population, Secure Communities (S-Comm) -- pitched as protection against violent criminals -- devolved into dragnets and mass deportations, with people getting dragged in for minor offenses like missing business permits and even for reporting crimes. In one incident a woman called the police about a domestic violence incident, only to be ensnared in deportation proceedings herself. As Marie Diamond points out in Think Progress, DHS's immigration databases have so many errors that the program "routinely flags citizens as undocumented immigrants."

To complicate matters: activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights argue that the documents they obtained after an FOIA request and lawsuit show that the FBI saw the program as a great opportunity to start beefing up NGI and pushed reluctant local police departments to participate in the program.

An CJIS/FBI guide instructing officials how to pitch S-Comm to local law enforcement explains that, "Ultimately, LEA participation is inevitable because SC is simply the first of a number of biometric interoperatability systems being brought online by the FBI/CJIS 'Next Generation Identification' initiative."

The document lays out strategies for dealing with resistant police departments, including, "Deploy to as many places in the surrounding locale, creating a 'ring of interoperatability' around the resistant site."

"It's a way of operationalizing wide-sweeping intelligence gathering," Sunita Patel of CCR tells AlterNet.

What could possibly go wrong?

Advancements in the collection of biometric data are double-edged: there's the threat of a massive government surveillance infrastructure working too well -- e.g., surveillance state -- and there are concerns about its weaknesses, especially in keeping data secure.

A breach of a sophisticated, multi-modal biometric database makes for a nightmarish scenario because the whole point of biometric data is that it offers unique ways to ID people, so there's no easy fix -- like a password change -- for compromised biometric data. Pointing to the dangers of identify theft of biometric data, Patel observes that, "Unlike a password, the algorithm of an iris can't be changed."

Homeland Security monitors journalists

Homeland Security monitors journalists

US Dept. of Homeland Security.

US Dept. of Homeland Security.

TAGS: Internet, Information Technology, USA,WikiLeaks, Media, Social networks


Freedom of speech might allow journalists to get away with a lot in America, but the Department of Homeland Security is on the ready to make sure that the government is keeping dibs on who is saying what.

Under the National Operations Center (NOC)’s Media Monitoring Initiative that came out of DHS headquarters in November, Washington has the written permission to retain data on users of social media and online networking platforms.

Specifically, the DHS announced the NCO and its Office of Operations Coordination and Planning (OPS) can collect personal information from news anchors, journalists, reporters or anyone who may use “traditional and/or social media in real time to keep their audience situationally aware and informed.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s own definition of personal identifiable information, or PII, such data could consist of any intellect “that permits the identity of an individual to be directly or indirectly inferred, including any information which is linked or linkable to that individual.” Previously established guidelines within the administration say that data could only be collected under authorization set forth by written code, but the new provisions in the NOC’s write-up means that any reporter, whether someone along the lines of Walter Cronkite or a budding blogger, can be victimized by the agency.

Also included in the roster of those subjected to the spying are government officials, domestic or not, who make public statements, private sector employees that do the same and “persons known to have been involved in major crimes of Homeland Security interest,” which to itself opens up the possibilities even wider.

The department says that they will only scour publically-made info available while retaining data, but it doesn’t help but raise suspicion as to why the government is going out of their way to spend time, money and resources on watching over those that helped bring news to the masses.

The development out of the DHS comes at the same time that U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady denied pleas from supporters of WikiLeaks who had tried to prevent account information pertaining to their Twitter accounts from being provided to federal prosecutors. Jacob Applebaum and others advocates of Julian Assange’s whistleblower site were fighting to keep the government from subpoenaing information on their personal accounts that were collected from Twitter.

Last month the Boston Police Department and the Suffolk Massachusetts District Attorney subpoenaed Twitter over details pertaining to recent tweets involving the Occupy Boston protests.

The website Fast Company reports that the intel collected by the Department of Homeland Security under the NOC Monitoring Initiative has been happening since as early as 2010 and the data is being shared with both private sector businesses and international third parties.

The IMF and US Join Hands in the Plunder of the African Continent

The IMF and US African Command (AFRICOM) Join Hands in the Plunder of the African Continent

Lagos Dissents Under IMF Hegemony

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Nigeria: The Next Front for AFRICOM

On a recent trip to West Africa, the newly appointed managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde ordered the governments of Nigeria, Guinea, Cameroon, Ghana and Chad to relinquish vital fuel subsidies. Much to the dismay of the population of these nations, the prices of fuel and transport have near tripled over night without notice, causing widespread violence on the streets of the Nigerian capital of Abuja and its economic center, Lagos. Much like the IMF induced riots in Indonesia during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, public discontent in Nigeria is channelled towards an incompetent and self-serving domestic elite, compliant to the interests of fraudulent foreign institutions.

Although Nigeria holds the most proven oil reserves in Africa behind Libya, it’s people are now expected to pay a fee closer to what the average American pays for the cost of fuel, an exorbitant sum in contrast to its regional neighbours. Alternatively, other oil producing nations such as Venezuela, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia offer their populations fuel for as little as $0.12 USD per gallon. While Lagos has one of Africa’s highest concentration of billionaires, the vast majority of the population struggle daily on less than $2.00 USD. Amid a staggering 47% youth unemployment rate and thousands of annual deaths related to preventable diseases, the IMF has pulled the rug out from under a nation where safe drinking water is a luxury to around 80% of it’s populace.

Although Nigeria produces 2.4 million barrels of crude oil a day intended for export use, the country struggles with generating sufficient electrical power and maintaining its infrastructure. Ironically enough, less than 6% of bank depositors own 88% of all bank deposits in Nigeria. Goldman Sachs employees line its domestic government, in addition to the former Vice President of the World Bank, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who is widely considered by many to be the de facto Prime Minister. Even after decades of producing lucrative oil exports, Nigeria has failed to maintain it’s own refineries, forcing it to illogically purchase oil imports from other nations. Society at large has not benefited from Nigeria’s natural riches, so it comes as no surprise that a severe level of distrust is held towards the government, who claims the fuel subsidy needs to be lifted in order to divert funds towards improving the quality of life within the country.

Like so many other nations, Nigerian people have suffered from a systematically reduced living standard after being subjected to the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Policies (SAP). Before a loan can be taken from the World Bank or IMF, a country must first follow strict economic policies, which include currency devaluation, lifting of trade tariffs, the removal of subsidies and detrimental budget cuts to critical public sector health and education services.

SAPs encourage borrower countries to focus on the production and export of domestic commodities and resources to increase foreign exchange, which can often be subject to dramatic fluctuations in value. Without the protection of price controls and an authentic currency rate, extreme inflation and poverty subsist to the point of civil unrest, as seen in a wide array of countries around the world (usually in former colonial protectorates). The people of Nigeria have been one of the world’s most vocal against IMF-induced austerity measures, student protests have been met with heavy handed repression since 1986 and several times since then, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths. As a testament to the success of the loan, the average laborer in Nigeria earned 35% more in the 1970’s than he would of in 2012.

Working through the direct representation of Western Financial Institutions and the IMF in Nigeria’s Government, a new IMF conditionality calls for the creation of a Sovereign Wealth Fund. Olusegun Aganga, the former Nigerian Minister of Finance commented on how the SWF was hastily pushed through and enacted prior to the countries national elections. If huge savings are amassed from oil exports and austerity measures, one cannot realistically expect that these funds will be invested towards infrastructure development based on the current track record of the Nigerian Government. Further more, it is increasingly more likely that any proceeds from a SWF would be beneficial to Western institutions and markets, which initially demanded its creation. Nigerian philanthropist Bukar Usman prophetically writes “I have genuine fears that the SWF would serve us no better than other foreign-recommended "remedies" which we had implemented to our own detriment in the past or are being pushed to implement today.”

The abrupt simultaneous removal of fuel subsidies in several West African nations is a clear indication of who is really in charge of things in post-colonial Africa. The timing of its cushion-less implementation could not be any worse, Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan recently declared a state of emergency after forty people were killed in a church bombing on Christmas day, an act allegedly committed by the Islamist separatist group, Boko Haram. The group advocates dividing the predominately Muslim northern states from the Christian southern states, a similar predicament to the recent division of Sudan.

As the United States African Command (AFRICOM) begins to gain a foothold into the continent with its troops officially present in Eritrea and Uganda in an effort to maintain security and remove other theocratic religious groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, the sectarian violence in Nigeria provides a convenient pretext for military intervention in the continuing resource war. For further insight into this theory, it is interesting to note that United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania conducted a series of African war game scenarios in preparation for the Pentagon’s expansion of AFRICOM under the Obama Administration.

In the presence of US State Department Officials, employees from The Rand Corporation and Israeli military personnel, a military exercise was undertaken which tested how AFRICOM would respond to a disintegrating Nigeria on the verge of collapse amidst civil war. The scenario envisioned rebel factions vying for control of the Niger Delta oil fields (the source of one of America’s top oil imports), which would potentially be secured by some 20,000 U.S. troops if a US-friendly coup failed to take place At a press conference at the House Armed Services Committee on March 13, 2008, AFRICOM Commander, General William Ward then went on to brazenly state the priority issue of America’s growing dependence on African oil would be furthered by AFRICOM operating under the principle theatre-goal of “combating terrorism”.

At an AFRICOM Conference held at Fort McNair on February 18, 2008, Vice Admiral Robert T. Moeller openly declared the guiding principle of AFRICOM was to protect “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market”, before citing China’s increasing presence in the region as challenging to American interests. After the unwarranted snatch-and-grab regime change conducted in Libya, nurturing economic destabilization, civil unrest and sectarian conflict in Nigeria is an ultimately tangible effort to secure Africa’s second largest oil reserves. During the pillage of Libya, its SFW accounts worth over 1.2 billion USD were frozen and essentially absorbed by Franco-Anglo-American powers; it would realistic to assume that much the same would occur if Nigeria failed to comply with Western interests. While agents of foreign capital have already infiltrated its government, there is little doubt that Nigeria will become a new front in the War on Terror.

Thousands of US troops deploying to Israel

Thousands of US troops deploying to Israel

Reuters / Nir Elias

Without much media attention, thousands of American troops are being deployed to Israel, and Iranian officials believe that this is the latest and most blatant warning that the US will soon be attacking Tehran.

Tensions between nations have been high in recent months and have only worsened in the weeks since early December when Iran hijacked and recovered an American drone aircraft. Many have speculated that a back-and-forth between the two countries will soon escalate Iran and the US into an all-out war, and that event might occur sooner than thought.

Under the Austere Challenge 12 drill scheduled for an undisclosed time during the next few weeks, the Israeli military will together with America host the largest-ever joint missile drill by the two countries. Following the installation of American troops near Iran’s neighboring Strait of Hormuz and the reinforcing of nearby nations with US weapons, Tehran authorities are considering this not a test but the start of something much bigger.

In the testing, America's Theater High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile system will be operating alongside its ship-based Aegis system and Israel's own program to work with Arrow, Patriot and Iron Drone missiles.

Israeli military officials say that the testing was planned before recent episodes involving the US and Iran. Of concern, however, is how the drill will require the deployment of thousands of American troops into Israel. The Jerusalem Post quotes US Commander Lt.-Gen Frank Gorenc as saying the drill is not just an “exercise” but also a “deployment” that will involve “several thousand American soldiers” heading to Israel. Additionally, new command posts will be established by American forces in Israel and that country’s own IDF army will begin working from a base in Germany.

In September, the US European Command established a radar system in Israel.

With America previously equipping Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with weaponry to wreck any chance of an Iranian nuclear weapon program from close by, the US will now have added forces on the ready in Israel and Germany under what Tehran fears is a guise being merely perpetrated as a test-run. RT reported last week that the US is equipping Saudi Arabia with nearly $30 billion F-15 war planes, a deal that comes shortly after Washington worked out a contract with Dubai to give the UAE advanced “bunker buster” bombs that could decimate underground nuclear operations in neighboring Iran.

Since the US surveillance mission over Iran that left overseas intelligence with a captured American drone aircraft, tensions have only escalated between the two nations. After Iran threatened to close down the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial path for the nation’s oil trade, the US dispatched 15,000 marines into the area.

Haiti: Two Years After Earthquake

Haiti: two years after earthquake

Ever since Haiti was established as the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere — by carrying out a heroic military slave uprising against the country’s slave masters in 1804 — it has suffered unimaginable superexploitation and poverty comparable to that imposed on poorer African countries. The French colonizers made billions upon billions in profits from slave labor and theft of Haitian resources. These profits helped to lay the foundation for France becoming the imperialist power it is today.

The Haitian people received little to no economic compensation for the racist oppression they suffered at the hands of the French. In fact, when the U.S. sent its marines to occupy Haiti from 1915 until 1934, a devastating crisis was imposed in which at least 40 percent of the Haitian national income went toward debt repayment to France and the U.S., rather than toward rebuilding Haiti. The French pushed an excuse of “financial losses” following its military defeat in Haiti.

The Haitian debt crisis was in reality punishment by these imperialists against Haiti for the 1804 struggle for total independence and sovereignty. Haiti is currently owned lock, stock and barrel by imperialist banks, with austerity and debt holding back much-needed development and social advancement in all areas of life.

It is important to understand this historical reality on the two-year anniversary of the terrible earthquake that decimated especially the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capitol, on Jan. 12, 2010. An estimated 100,000 to 500,000 Haitian people died during the earthquake, mainly due to the country’s poor infrastructure — including lack of adequate housing, water, medical care and access to roads.

A month following the earthquake, foreign ministers from various capitalist countries called a “Friends of Haiti” conference in Montreal, headed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, to discuss the “rebuilding” of Haiti. In reality, this conference was sponsored by corporate vultures like General Electric, Caterpillar and Deere, along with the World Bank, which saw an opportunity to make superprofits off of Haitian suffering by making promises to shore up the private sector.

Two years after the earthquake, there are still 500,000 homeless Haitians barely surviving in dilapidated tents and shacks. To add insult to injury, Minustah, a U.S.-supported occupation under the guise of the United Nations, introduced cholera into the country. Now an epidemic, cholera has killed thousands of Haitians over the past year, while Minustah has repressed any justified uprisings against inhumane living conditions.

It is important for the worldwide progressive movement to keep Haiti uppermost on its anti-imperialist agenda. The Haitian people need and welcome genuine solidarity as they continue to find ways to resist military intervention and capitalist exploitation. This includes the Haitian struggle in New York finding allies among the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Another form of solidarity with Haiti is for the movement to demand the cancellation of the country’s unjust debt. The movement should demand that reparations in the trillions of dollars be paid to the Haitian people to rebuild their nation in any way they see fit, and not for a U.N. occupation that serves imperialist interests.

The Crime Of Privatized Prisons

The Crime Of Privatized Prisons

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Here in the U.S., our “land of the free,” there are approximately 130,000 inmates now housed in privately owned prisons. It‘s a foul stench within a justice system that leads the world in number of people incarcerated within a state, federal or private institution. The latest tally of 2 million equals 25 percent of the globe’s incarcerated population.

This massive waste of human life is commonly known as the prison-industrial complex, with an even more oppressive current now being led from the top down by the highly profitable prison privatization movement. Its roots can be traced back to Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and tougher sentencing platform in the 1980s.

Due to policymakers’ concerns about prison overcrowding, in 1984 the Corrections Corporation of America was contracted to oversee its first facility in Hamilton County, Tenn. The transition set a federal precedent for private control of correctional institutes.

Though depicted as cost-saving, efficient operations, independent studies suggest the contrary. A lack of regulation permits smaller staff and inadequate training, which in turn produces more violent and consistently unstable conditions for prisoners. Sustainable medical care has come into question, as private prisons like the George W. Hill Center, Walnut Grove Youth Facility and New Castle Correctional Institute have garnered a barrage of recent scrutiny over the deaths of dozens of inmates. Private prisons have also proven to be just as costly to construct as publicly run prisons.

The same companies grossing billions from the capture and incarceration of people in the U.S. — mostly poor, Black and Latino/a — are the same brokers who donate millions to state senators, school boards, mayors and police chiefs. It’s no secret that private firms such as The GEO Group authorize direct appeals to federal legislation like “three strikes” and mandatory minimum sentencing. Common sense says such merging complexities spell corruption.

Meanwhile, predatory investors like Wells Fargo, American Express and Merrill Lynch reap robust returns on private bond purchases — these greed-driven giants literally banking on the results of Black and Latino/a youth and their 4th grade test scores. (The Children’s Defense Fund details this association through its Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign.) Additional stakeholders include a slew of corporate sponsors: Nordstrom’s, Microsoft, IBM, Revlon, Target, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and even AT&T.

Fact is, people in the U.S. aren’t committing more crime; we’re doing more time because it pays. We’re talking Third-World sweatshops disguised as rehab programs, possibly in your home state! This human rights infringement isn’t punishing someone who does wrong; it’s profiting from the pain of that punishment, exploiting the limited freedoms of inhumane confinement, maximizing such restrictive conditions for capital gain — the same profits that merely perpetuate the incarceration of more people for longer periods of time.

While poverty in the U.S. continues to plague the general public, job positions are going for $1 an hour in the private prison sector. No wonder we can’t find jobs; our furniture and home appliances are being produced by rent-a-slaves. Such control sounds eerily similar to the Black Belt’s Convict Lease System of the late 1800s, a state-run practice throughout the South that forcibly extracted free labor from newly emancipated slaves deemed “criminal.”

If this is what big business means by “Made in America,” I don’t want no parts of it.

The Scaffolding Of An American Police State

The Scaffolding Of An American Police State

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With his December 31 signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), allowing for indefinite military detention without charges or trial, Barack Obama has made an infamous contribution to the steady march towards police-state dictatorship in the United States.

The sweeping implications of this act, pushed through to provide $662 billion to feed the US war machine, could not be concealed by the shamefaced signing ceremony, held in private and late in the day on New Year’s Eve to minimize media coverage and public attention.

Nor is the objective content of the clauses legalizing the military’s locking up of American citizens and non-citizens alike on the sole say-so of the White House changed in the slightest by the hypocritical signing statement the president issued in enacting the legislation.

Claiming “serious reservations” about the law he was enacting, Obama declared that “my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of US citizens.” He allowed that such a practice would “break with our most important traditions and values as a nation.”

Obama’s pledge is as duplicitous as it is worthless. As one of the legislation’s key Democratic sponsors, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, revealed, the Obama White House intervened directly into the legislative process to kill amendments that would have specifically prohibited the military from indefinitely imprisoning US citizens without trial. It viewed such an exemption as an unacceptable restriction on presidential power.

The Obama administration’s record over the last three years speaks for itself. The Democratic president was swept into office on a wave of popular revulsion towards the Bush administration’s criminal wars and attacks on democratic rights. He vowed to close down the Guantanamo prison camp within one year and, during his campaign, condemned Bush for establishing a system in which he could “lock people away without ever telling them why they’re there or what they’re charged with.”

Once in office, the administration intervened repeatedly in court cases to quash any attempt to hold its predecessors to account for everything from torture to illegal domestic spying. It upheld the president’s “right” to order indefinite military detentions and continued the odious practice of “rendition”—in which suspects are abducted and bundled off to foreign countries for interrogation and torture.

Going significantly further than the Bush administration, the Obama White House arrogated to itself the “right” to order the assassination of US citizens without presenting any evidence against them, carrying out such extra-judicial murders against the New Mexico-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son.

Now, Obama has signed into law provisions essentially legalizing the kind of atrocities associated with fascistic military dictatorships, such as those spawned by the Pentagon and the CIA in Latin America, where thousands of workers, students and political opponents of these regimes—who were branded as terrorists—“disappeared” into secret detention and torture centers, never to be seen again.

The assault on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the centuries-old principle of habeas corpus, and the steady erection of the scaffolding for an American police state are not simply the outcome of the personal views or politics of either Bush or Obama.

The process is bound up with the social, economic and political contradictions of American capitalism. It has been developing in an uninterrupted fashion over the course of well over a decade.

In the 2000 election crisis, the Socialist Equality Party warned that the decision of the US Supreme Court to halt the counting of the ballots in Florida and install Bush as president, despite his losing the popular vote, made clear that there existed no significant constituency for democratic rights in the American ruling elite and its political system.

This assessment has been confirmed in spades over the last 11 years. Using the September 11 attacks as a pretext, the government set up a vast apparatus of domestic spying, enacted the Patriot Act, founded the Department of Homeland Security, created the Pentagon’s Northern Command that cleared the way for the use of the military in the US itself, and established a global network of CIA-run detention and torture centers. More recently, the American people have witnessed the systematic and coordinated suppression of nationwide Occupy Wall Street protests by militarized police forces.

The mounting threat of dictatorship has deep historical roots. The post-World War II period has seen repeated and sustained attacks on democratic rights, ranging from the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s to the CIA-FBI spying and “dirty tricks” that culminated in the Watergate crisis in the 1970s.

These earlier assaults on constitutional rights, however, encountered significant resistance within the political establishment. President Harry Truman, for example, used his veto in an attempt to kill the 1950 McCarran Act, the last time legislation was passed giving the government powers of indefinite detention without trial. Truman called the legislation “a long step toward totalitarianism” and a “mockery of the Bill of Rights.”

What is perhaps most significant about the passage of the NDAA and its codification of indefinite detention is the lack of any significant opposition. The mass media and the political establishment passed over Obama’s signing of the bill in virtual silence.

This shift is bound up with fundamental changes in the structure of US society—in particular, the unprecedented growth of social inequality. This gulf, dividing the billionaires and multi-millionaires that make up the top one percent from the great mass of working people, is incompatible with even the pretense of democracy.

With American and world capitalism confronting a historic breakdown, the ruling class, which controls both the Democratic and Republican parties, is prepared to employ whatever means are required—including those of police-state dictatorship—to defend its monopoly of wealth and power against a resurgence of class struggle. Similar developments are taking place throughout Europe and internationally under the impact of the global crisis.

The defense of democratic rights is inseparable from the fight to defend jobs and living standards and is impossible today without a direct assault on the immense concentration of wealth in the hands of a financial oligarchy.

Such a struggle can be mounted only by means of the independent political mobilization of the working class for the reorganization of economic life on the basis of social need, rather than private profit.

Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs

Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs

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Benjamin Franklin did it. Henry Ford did it. And American life is built on the faith that others can do it, too: rise from humble origins to economic heights. “Movin’ on up,” George Jefferson-style, is not only a sitcom song but a civil religion.

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.

Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a Republican candidate for president, warned this fall that movement “up into the middle income is actually greater, the mobility in Europe, than it is in America.” National Review, a conservative thought leader, wrote that “most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility.” Even Representative Paul D. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who argues that overall mobility remains high, recently wrote that “mobility from the very bottom up” is “where the United States lags behind.”

Liberal commentators have long emphasized class, but the attention on the right is largely new.

“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” said Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.”

One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations. A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints.

Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. That compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.

Despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.

By emphasizing the influence of family background, the studies not only challenge American identity but speak to the debate about inequality. While liberals often complain that the United States has unusually large income gaps, many conservatives have argued that the system is fair because mobility is especially high, too: everyone can climb the ladder. Now the evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile.

John Bridgeland, a former aide to President George W. Bush who helped start Opportunity Nation, an effort to seek policy solutions, said he was “shocked” by the international comparisons. “Republicans will not feel compelled to talk about income inequality,” Mr. Bridgeland said. “But they will feel a need to talk about a lack of mobility — a lack of access to the American Dream.”

While Europe differs from the United States in culture and demographics, a more telling comparison may be with Canada, a neighbor with significant ethnic diversity. Miles Corak, an economist at the University of Ottawa, found that just 16 percent of Canadian men raised in the bottom tenth of incomes stayed there as adults, compared with 22 percent of Americans. Similarly, 26 percent of American men raised at the top tenth stayed there, but just 18 percent of Canadians.

“Family background plays more of a role in the U.S. than in most comparable countries,” Professor Corak said in an interview.

Skeptics caution that the studies measure “relative mobility” — how likely children are to move from their parents’ place in the income distribution. That is different from asking whether they have more money. Most Americans have higher incomes than their parents because the country has grown richer.

Some conservatives say this measure, called absolute mobility, is a better gauge of opportunity. A Pew study found that 81 percent of Americans have higher incomes than their parents (after accounting for family size). There is no comparable data on other countries.

Since they require two generations of data, the studies also omit immigrants, whose upward movement has long been considered an American strength. “If America is so poor in economic mobility, maybe someone should tell all these people who still want to come to the U.S.,” said Stuart M. Butler, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

The income compression in rival countries may also make them seem more mobile. Reihan Salam, a writer for The Daily and National Review Online, has calculated that a Danish family can move from the 10th percentile to the 90th percentile with $45,000 of additional earnings, while an American family would need an additional $93,000.

Even by measures of relative mobility, Middle America remains fluid. About 36 percent of Americans raised in the middle fifth move up as adults, while 23 percent stay on the same rung and 41 percent move down, according to Pew research. The “stickiness” appears at the top and bottom, as affluent families transmit their advantages and poor families stay trapped.

While Americans have boasted of casting off class since Poor Richard’s Almanac, until recently there has been little data.

Pioneering work in the early 1980s by Gary S. Becker, a Nobel laureate in economics, found only a mild relationship between fathers’ earnings and those of their sons. But when better data became available a decade later, another prominent economist, Gary Solon, found the bond twice as strong. Most researchers now estimate the “elasticity” of father-son earnings at 0.5, which means if one man earns $100,000 more than another, his sons would earn $50,000 more on average than the sons of the poorer man.

In 2006 Professor Corak reviewed more than 50 studies of nine countries. He ranked Canada, Norway, Finland and Denmark as the most mobile, with the United States and Britain roughly tied at the other extreme. Sweden, Germany, and France were scattered across the middle.

The causes of America’s mobility problem are a topic of dispute — starting with the debates over poverty. The United States maintains a thinner safety net than other rich countries, leaving more children vulnerable to debilitating hardships.

Poor Americans are also more likely than foreign peers to grow up with single mothers. That places them at an elevated risk of experiencing poverty and related problems, a point frequently made by Mr. Santorum, who surged into contention in the Iowa caucuses. The United States also has uniquely high incarceration rates, and a longer history of racial stratification than its peers.

“The bottom fifth in the U.S. looks very different from the bottom fifth in other countries,” said Scott Winship, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, who wrote the article for National Review. “Poor Americans have to work their way up from a lower floor.”

A second distinguishing American trait is the pay tilt toward educated workers. While in theory that could help poor children rise — good learners can become high earners — more often it favors the children of the educated and affluent, who have access to better schools and arrive in them more prepared to learn.

“Upper-income families can invest more in their children’s education and they may have a better understanding of what it takes to get a good education,” said Eric Wanner, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, which gives grants to social scientists.

The United States is also less unionized than many of its peers, which may lower wages among the least skilled, and has public health problems, like obesity and diabetes, which can limit education and employment.

Perhaps another brake on American mobility is the sheer magnitude of the gaps between rich and the rest — the theme of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which emphasize the power of the privileged to protect their interests. Countries with less equality generally have less mobility.

Mr. Salam recently wrote that relative mobility “is overrated as a social policy goal” compared with raising incomes across the board. Parents naturally try to help their children, and a completely mobile society would mean complete insecurity: anyone could tumble any time.

But he finds the stagnation at the bottom alarming and warns that it will worsen. Most of the studies end with people born before 1970, while wage gaps, single motherhood and incarceration increased later. Until more recent data arrives, he said, “we don’t know the half of it.”

Have the Super-Rich Seceded from the United States?

Have the Super-Rich Seceded from the United States?

It was in 1993, during congressional deliberation over the North American Free Trade Agreement. I was having lunch with a staffer for one of the rare Republican members of Congress who opposed the policy of so-called free trade. I distinctly remember something my colleague said: “The rich elites of this country have far more in common with their counterparts in London, Paris, and Tokyo than with their own fellow American citizens.”

That was just the beginning of the period when the realities of outsourced manufacturing, financialization of the economy, and growing income disparity started to seep into the public consciousness, so at the time it seemed like a striking and novel statement.

At the end of the cold war many writers predicted the decline of the traditional nation state. Some looked at the demise of the Soviet Union and foresaw the territorial state breaking up into statelets of different ethnic, religious, or economic compositions. This happened in the Balkans, former Czechoslovakia, and Sudan. Others, like Chuck Spinney, predicted a weakening of the state due to the rise of Fourth Generation Warfare, and the inability of national armies to adapt to it. The quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan lend credence to that theory. There have been hundreds of books about globalization and how it would break down borders. But I am unaware of a well-developed theory from that time about how the super-rich and the corporations they run would secede from the nation state.

I do not mean secession in terms of physical withdrawal from the territory of the state, although that happens occasionally. It means a withdrawal into enclaves, a sort of internal immigration, whereby the rich disconnect themselves from the civic life of the nation and from any concern about its well-being except as a place to extract loot. Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it. If one can afford private security, public safety is of no concern; if one owns a Gulfstream jet, crumbling bridges cause less apprehension – and viable public transportation doesn’t even show up on the radar screen. With private doctors on call, who cares about Medicare?

To some degree the rich have always secluded themselves from the gaze of the common herd; for example, their habit for centuries has been to send their offspring to private schools. But now this habit is exacerbated by the plutocracy’s palpable animosity towards public education and public educators, as Michael Bloomberg has demonstrated. To the extent public education “reform” is popular among billionaires and their tax-exempt foundations, one suspects it is as a lever to divert the more than one-half trillion dollars in federal, state, and local education dollars into private hands, meaning themselves and their friends. A century ago, at least we got some attractive public libraries out of Andrew Carnegie. Noblesse oblige like Carnegie’s is presently lacking among our seceding plutocracy.

In both world wars, even a Harvard man or a New York socialite might know the weight of an army pack. Now the military is for suckers from the laboring classes whose subprime mortgages you just sliced into CDOs and sold to gullible investors in order to buy your second Bentley or rustle up the cash to employ Rod Stewart to perform at your birthday party. Courtesy of Matt Taibbi, we learn that the sentiment among the super-rich towards the rest of America is often one of contempt rather than noblesse; Bernard Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, says about the views of the 99 percent: “Who gives a crap about some imbecile?”

Steven Schwarzman, the hedge fund billionaire CEO of the Blackstone Group who hired Rod Stewart for his $5-million birthday party, believes it is the rabble who are socially irresponsible. Speaking about low-income citizens who pay no income tax, he says: “You have to have skin in the game. I’m not saying how much people should do. But we should all be part of the system.” But millions of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes pay federal payroll taxes. These taxes are regressive, and the dirty little secret is that over the last several decades they have made up a greater and greater share of federal revenues. In 1950, payroll and other federal retirement contributions constituted 10.9 percent of all federal revenues; by 2007, the last “normal” economic year before federal revenues began falling, they made up 33.9 percent. By contrast, corporate income taxes were 26.4 percent of federal revenues in 1950; by 2007 they had fallen to 14.4 percent. Who has skin in the game now?

As is well known by now, Schwarzman benefits from the “Buffett Rule:” financial sharks typically take their compensation in the form of capital gains rather than salaries, thus knocking down their income tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent. But that’s not the only way Mr. Skin-in-the-Game benefits: the 6.2-percent Social Security tax and the 1.45-percent Medicare tax apply only to wages and salaries, not capital gains distributions. Accordingly, Schwarzman is stiffing the system in two ways: not only is his income tax rate less than half the top marginal rate, he is shorting the Social Security system that others of his billionaire colleagues like Pete Peterson say is unsustainable and needs to be cut.

This lack of skin in the game may explain why Willard Mitt Romney is so coy about releasing his income tax returns. It would also make sense for someone with $264 million in net worth to joke that he is “unemployed,” as if he were some jobless sheet metal worker in Youngstown, when he is really saying in code that his income stream is not a salary subject to payroll deduction. The chances are good that his effective rate for both federal income and payroll taxes is lower than that of many a wage slave.

The real joke is on the rest of us. After the biggest financial meltdown in 80 years – a meltdown caused by the type of rogue financial manipulation that Romney embodies – and a consequent long, steep drop in the American standard of living, who is the putative front-runner for one of the only two parties allowed to be competitive in American politics? None other than Mitt Romney, the man who says corporations are people. Opposing him, or someone like him, will be the incumbent president, Barack Obama, who will raise up to a billion dollars to compete in the campaign. Much of that loot will come from the same corporations, hedge fund managers, merger and acquisition specialists, and leveraged buyout artists the president will denounce in pro forma fashion during the campaign.

The super-rich have seceded from America even as their grip on its control mechanisms has tightened.

America Beyond Capitalism: Is It Possible?

America Beyond Capitalism: Is It Possible?

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The following article is adapted from "America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy," a new paperback edition of which will be published this month by The Democracy Collaborative and Dollars & Sense.

“Black Monday,” September 19, 1977, was the day 34 years ago when the shuttering of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill threw 5,000 steelworkers onto the streets of their decaying Midwestern hometown. No local, state or federal programs offered significant help. Steelworkers called training programs “funeral insurance”: they led nowhere since there were no other jobs available. Inspired by a young steelworker, an ecumenical religious coalition put forward a plan for community-worker ownership of the giant mill. The plan captured widespread media attention, the support of numerous Democrats and Republicans (including the conservative governor of the state at the time), and an initial $200 million in loan guarantees from the Carter administration.

Corporate and other political maneuvering in the end undercut the Youngstown initiative. Nonetheless, the effort had ongoing impact, especially in Ohio, where the idea of worker-ownership became widespread in significant part as the result of publicity and educational efforts traceable to the Youngstown effort—and because of the depth of policy failures and the continuing pain of deindustrialization throughout the state. In the more than three decades since that effott, numerous employee-owned companies—inspired directly and indirectly by the effort to save the Youngstown mill—have been developed in Ohio. Individual lives were also changed, among them that of the late John Logue, a professor at Kent State University who established the Ohio Employee Ownership Center, an organization that provides technical and other assistance to help firms across the state become worker-owned.

There has also been an evolution in the position of the United Steelworkers union. In the late 1970s the union saw worker-ownership as a threat to organizing, and it opposed efforts by local steelworkers to explore employee-owned institution-building in cities like Youngstown. Over the decades, however, the union changed its position as its leaders saw the need to supplement traditional forms of labor organizing with other strategies. The union has now become a strong advocate of worker ownership, and is actively working to develop new models based upon the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in the Basque country of Spain. This highly successful grouping of worker-owned cooperatives employs 85,000 people in fields ranging from sophisticated medical technology and the production of appliances to large supermarkets and a credit union with over 21 billion euros in assets.

The developmental trajectory from Youngstown to today illustrates what might be called “forced institutional innovation”—a process that, once underway, also suggests further possibilities for larger-scale and more refined development both within Ohio and elsewhere—especially as many other parts of the nation now experience the massive job losses and community decay that hit Ohio and other rustbelt states three decades ago. Critically, all involve new ways to give concrete meaning to the idea of democratizing capital.

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One line of this development points towards increasing knowledge, along with local innovation and the buildup of new and ever more sophisticated strategies over time. The most recent and advanced of these is a major effort in Cleveland that has taken the idea of worker-ownership forward in new ways. The “Cleveland Model” now underway in that city involves an integrated complex of worker-owned cooperative enterprises targeted in significant part at the $3 billion purchasing power of such large scale “anchor institutions” as the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospital, and Case Western Reserve University. The complex also includes a revolving fund so that profits made by the businesses help establish new ventures as time goes on. (Full disclosure: I was one of the chief planners of the Youngstown steel effort, and The Democracy Collaborative, an organization which I co-founded, played a major role in helping develop the Cleveland effort.)

The first of the linked worker-owned companies, Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, is a state-of-the-art commercial laundry that provides clean linens for area hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels. The thoroughly “green” company operates out of a building that received a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) “Silver” rating for its energy-saving design and uses (and only has to heat) less than one third as much water per pound of laundry as typical competitors. At full staff it will include 50 worker-owners. The enterprise pays above-market wages, provides health insurance, and is still able to compete successfully against other commercial laundries. Another company, Ohio Cooperative Solar (OCS), provides weatherization services and installs, owns, and maintains solar panels on the rooftops of large university, hospital, and civic buildings. In its first year of operations OCS installed 400 kilowatts of solar generation capacity and is on target to more than double Ohio’s current total statewide solar generating capacity of two megawatts by 2012.

A commercial hydroponic greenhouse that covers 3.25 acres and will be capable of producing three million heads of lettuce a year broke ground on October 17 of this year. Additional new worker-owned businesses are being developed at a planned expansion rate of two to four ventures per year. A twenty-acre land trust will ultimately own the land upon which many of the businesses are situated and will serve as a first step to facilitating development in targeted neighborhoods of urban agriculture, and, when conditions permit, affordable housing. Like the Steelworkers, the Cleveland group has also drawn upon the experience of the Mondragón cooperative model, particularly in the design of its revolving fund.

Although the model began as a foundation- supported effort, the trajectory of institution-building development also has clear political implications. The Cleveland worker-owned businesses, backed by the city’s mayor, shrewdly utilized many of the same municipal, state, and federal tax, loan and other incentives available to any business. In turn, the success of the effort has also bolstered political support for the city’s liberal mayor. It also has slowly begun to suggest ways to make city officials less vulnerable to demands by major corporations seeking huge tax and other inducements to locate, often temporarily, in the city. Put another way, the developing institutional form has suggested the outlines of a new power constellation that in effect slowly displaces corporate influence, a strategy that may one day take its place alongside more traditional “countervailing-power” strategies that attempt to regulate, tax, and “incentivize” corporate power. In a further development, the Cleveland model has become the basis for new national legislation about to be introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown to provide federal support to test the approach in other cities.

The effort has also struck a chord among activists and economic development practitioners throughout the nation who are concerned with the collapse of the economic core of many cities. Exploratory efforts are currently underway to replicate aspects of the Cleveland model in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and several other communities. The “demonstration effect” of the highly unorthodox model has also begun to challenge community organizers to find ways to incorporate worker-owned development into grassroots activist strategies.

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The long evolutionary trajectory traced by developments in Ohio offers lessons worth careful examination by activists and scholars alike. First, experience in Cleveland and in many cities now exploring replication of the model demonstrates that worker-owned co-ops are well within American political possibilities. Local businessmen, bankers, and others, in fact, commonly support the idea both on practical and moral grounds. To the extent such efforts increase local economic activity they help the local economy. Moreover, the focus on work and even ownership is seen by all parties as a positive contribution. The atmosphere at the local level is far different from the ideologically driven national political debate: What counts above all is whether the projects are intelligently developed, practical, and serious. In the midst of the worst financial crisis in modern history, the Cleveland worker-owned co-ops were able to secure bank financing for key projects. The idea of creating wealth, not simply jobs, also has a powerful resonance. The Evergreen model takes us well past token job creation at minimum wages in states like Rick Perry’s Texas, to a very different conception of what people deserve and ought to be able to have.

Institution-changing projects like the Cleveland model also demonstrably have the power to alter ideas about what can be talked about in conventional discourse—particularly ideas about who should own “the means of production.” The developmental path, importantly, is an example of the historical creation of political knowledge: To use a concept put forward by Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, the practical, the very down-home efforts challenge the dominant, hegemonic ideology in a very unorthodox American way. They introduce a new idea into common culture. Another question they pose is how, in practical terms, serious activists committed to the long haul might aim in this and other ways to self-consciously shift what can be discussed in politics over time. One obvious line of development that might flow from the Ohio experience would be a concerted and self-conscious effort to attempt to create more worker-owned businesses, backed by local political support, wherever possible. The nation’s ongoing and likely continued economic stagnation and decay appear all but certain to create conditions in many American communities similar to those that gave rise to the Youngstown effort, the follow-on developmental path in Ohio, and the Cleveland model.

A mere one percent at the top now owns roughly half of the nation’s investment capital—more wealth than the entire bottom half of society taken together. This is literally a medieval pattern of ownership. Worker co-ops are one way to offer a practical alternative to this pattern, but they are not the only way. There are many other ways to democratize ownership—to move ownership out of the corporate system and in one way or another to institutions that are community-serving. This is far less familiar ground for most activists and scholars. Nonetheless, at the community level where the pain has been greatest, many other ways to democratize ownership have been quietly developing over the last several decades. All in one way or another give practical meaning to the simple idea that wealth and ownership ought rightly to be lodged in institutions that serve the community or broader social purposes.

Just below the surface of media attention, for instance, there are more than 4,500 not-for-profit community development corporations that operate affordable housing and other community-building programs in cities throughout the United States. In many cities new “community land trusts,” once viewed as beyond the pale, now increasingly use nonprofit or municipal ownership to develop and maintain permanently affordable housing. “Social enterprises” that run businesses to support such community-serving missions as drug rehabilitation and training programs comprise an emerging “fourth sector” of the economy (different from the government, business, and non-profit sectors). Another 130 million Americans are members of urban food and housing co-ops, traditional agricultural cooperatives and, importantly, widespread credit unions. Additionally, approximately 1.5 million non-profits provide more than 10% of the nation’s employment.

It is also important to begin to take seriously the 11,000 other businesses that are owned in whole or part by their employees. More than 13 million individuals are involved, several million more than are members of private-sector unions. Though Employee Stock Ownership Programs (ESOPs) have often been the subject of well-deserved criticism, many are now experimenting with increasingly participatory strategies aimed at overcoming past difficulties. Some are both worker owned and unionized, suggesting further longer-term evolutionary possibilities in connection with this ownership model. In Ohio, moreover, preliminary research indicates that as the share of ownership increases over time, so too does participation. Other studies show that greater participation brings greater profit—another longer-term dynamic favoring change in this sector. At some point a serious effort to radically reform the ESOP model and build upon its long developmental trend might well converge politically with other democratizing efforts. Critically, even in compromised form, the various enterprises all demonstrate the political viability and importance of the principle that workers can and should own capital.

Virtually all the democratized ownership forms—including thousands of co-ops, land trusts, social enterprises, and worker-owned companies of one kind or another—are also characterized by another principle of political importance, especially as ongoing economic decay destabilizes city after city: All are inherently anchored in, and supportive of, the local economy. Unlike private corporations, worker-owned companies of all descriptions rarely move to another city. The fate of those who own the company is intimately tied to the fate and health of the locality in which they both live and work. Virtually all the many other non-profit and related institutions based on democratized ownership principles are similarly place-anchored.

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It is instructive to underscore the “situational logic” that is both allowing and helping generate long-term innovation and institution-building of this kind—and its relationship to possible new directions for progressive politics. The driving force is the ongoing failure of traditional policy—and a deepening awareness that traditional efforts have reached a dead end.

A careful review of developments in connection with health care and finance also suggests emerging democratizing possibilities in other areas as well—again, especially as pain levels increase, and again when understood not simply in terms of immediate politics, but in terms of longer evolutionary trajectories of committed development. Even as the Obama health-care reform law has come under intense attack—and indeed, in significant part because of this—more than fifteen states are exploring one or another form of single-payer health care. Another fourteen states are considering creating state banks, following the long-established North Dakota model, a trend that is also likely to intensify when further Wall Street financial crises again have an impact on Main Street. Other well established public forms might also potentially be built upon—including state pension fund investing for public purposes (as in California and in Alabama where a somewhat maverick public strategy has long invested even in worker-owned firms). The well-known case of the Alaska Permanent Fund is also of interest as a model that translates public ownership of assets into direct citizen financial benefits. Many states, moreover, now commonly invest in new companies through venture capital strategies, keeping significant shares under public ownership—an approach that in future could open the way to other, more expansive public possibilities.

Central to these various developments is the question of perspective: Many of the possibilities in one way or another have begun to take shape and move in a new direction, again, because as in Ohio traditional progressive reform strategies are no longer capable of providing solutions to ever more painful problems. Confronting—and taking advantage of—this paradoxical dynamic presents challenges to both traditional and radical understandings. The “evolutionary reconstructive” strategic approach they illustrate is a form of change different not only from traditional reform, but different, too, from traditional theories of “revolution.” The various efforts all also involve a sense of the importance of a long, evolutionary process that builds towards institutions (and ideas) that may offer ongoing ways to fundamentally alter economic and political relationships over time.

At this stage of development the central strategic questions are how to refine and expand various models—and how over time to legitimate the idea of democratized ownership in general. Ultimately, however, such strategies must converge with (and provide new content for) political mobilizations, movement-building and electoral efforts that take us beyond liberal and populist categories of change. As in the prehistory of the Progressive Era—when what subsequently became elements of the New Deal were first developed in state and local “laboratories”—it is also possible that the quietly emerging mosaic of experience and ideas could establish principles that might be applied to larger scale structures when a new progressive politics once again arises out of the pain. The U.S. government did, after all, nationalize two auto giants, G.M. and Chrysler, in the recent crisis for a substantial period. Given the huge financial flows it directed to major banks and other financial institutions, it also could well have established public control of one or more of these as well. Such possibilities are likely to return in future. Far-reaching change of this kind, and beyond, might one day be achieved if serious scholars and activist are able to build forward on the emerging developments to create even more advanced democratizing models—along with constituencies that have come to understand why they are important to a democratic future.

Obama launches Bureau of Counterterrorism

Obama launches Bureau of Counterterrorism

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President Obama's State Department announced, during a press briefing today, the creation of the Bureau of Counterterrorism, which will coordinate with United States entities such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and foreign governments to develop civilian counterterrorism strategies and operations.

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"The mission of the new bureau will be to lead the [State] Department in the U.S. Government’s effort to counter terrorism abroad and to secure the United States against foreign terrorist threats," Ambassador Dan Benjamin told reporters. "The bureau will lead in supporting U.S. counterterrorism diplomacy and seek to strengthen homeland security, countering violent extremism, and build the capacity of partner nations to deal effectively with terrorism."

The bureau has previously operated on a smaller scale as an office under Benjamin. The upgrade comes as Obama has enjoyed foreign policy success due to the killing of Osama bin Laden, but also faced criticism over a quick withdrawal from Iraq, increasing aggression from Iran, and for negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "I want to underscore we all know that there is no way to shoot our way out of this problem conclusively and forever," Benjamin said today, "and that’s why strengthening our engagement with others to support their civilian institutions so that they can actually hold that territory, police that territory, try people who want to carry out violent attacks either against people who live there or abroad, is an absolutely vital undertaking."

The bureau will focus on foreign terrorists, but their activities have some bearing on domestic security. It collaborates with "the Department of Homeland Security to work jointly to stop terrorist travel, to improve aviation security," for instance, but will focus more on "the bilateral kind of diplomacy that we do with others on a number of different issues, whether it has to do with how we reduce the space that terrorist groups have to fundraise, [or] to operate," Benjamin explained.

Occupy Wall Street Builds Facebook Alternative

The Global Square: an online platform for our movement

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A proposal on how to perpetuate the creative and cooperative spirit of the occupations and transform them into lasting forms of social organization.

This is a proposal made by a group of concerned global citizens who also act as volunteers for Take the Square, United for Global Change, 15october.net, European Revolution and Reflections on a Revolution (ROAR). We do not pretend to represent or speak on behalf of anyone but ourselves.

The Global Square: Towards an Online Platform for the Occupy Movement

In its most recent tactical briefing for the Occupy movement, Adbusters correctly pointed out that, “of the many questions swirling around #OCCUPY, the most challenging is how to gel into a global movement without sacrificing the decentralized, leaderless model.” In the wake of the global day of action on October 15, the question now arises how our movement can evolve new organizational structures that will allow the assemblies — and their highly innovative participatory model of decision-making — to survive beyond the occupations and become a permanent fixture of our emerging global society.

How, in other words, can we perpetuate the creative and cooperative spirit of the occupations and transform them into lasting forms of social organization — at the global as well as the local level?

Currently, the organization of the occupations and the collaboration between them rests in part upon the innovative use of social media. However, as a group of volunteers who were directly involved in the coordination of the worldwide protests of October 15, we have found the existing social media to be increasingly restrictive in their functionality. While Facebook and Twitter have been very helpful for disseminating basic information and aiding mass mobilization, they do not provide us with the tools for extending our participatory model of decision-making beyond the direct reach of the assemblies and up to the global level.

What we need, at this point, is a platform that allows us to radically democratize our global organizational efforts. In addition to the local squares, we now need a global square where people of all nations can come together as equals to participate in the coordination of collective actions and the formulation of common goals and aspirations. For this reason, we call upon the revolutionary wizkids of the world to unite and assist in the development of a new online platform – The Global Square – that combines the communicative functions of the existing social networks with the political functions of the assemblies to provide crucial new tools for the development of our global movement.

The aim of the platform, in this respect, should not be to replace the physical assemblies but rather to empower them by providing the online tools for (trans)national organization and collaboration. The ideal would be both to foster individual participation and to structure collective action. The Global Square could be our own virtual Zuccotti Park, serving as a public space where different groups can come together to organize their local assemblies — and where different assemblies can join hands to coordinate their collective projects. In a way, The Global Square could be a groundbreaking experiment in building a global participatory decision-making system from the grassroots up.

To be more precise, the specific tools provided by this online platform could include the following (note that this list is far from exhaustive and will grow organically to include many other functionalities):

  • An interactive map that lists all ongoing assemblies around the world;
  • A search option allowing users to find squares, events, working-groups, etc.;
  • An aggregated news feed that lists the most relevant ‘status updates’ shared by the various assemblies (à la Facebook);
  • Individual ‘pages’ for each local square/assembly where participants can organize collectively, including the following functionalities:
    – A calendar with upcoming events/actions;
    – A forum for public debate, with the ability to open different threads;
    – A list of all relevant documents/minutes uploaded by the assembly;
    – The ability to create and edit new documents collaboratively;
    – The ability to vote on specific decisions;
    – The ability to submit new proposals.
  • A public and private messaging system that allows all individual users and assemblies to communicate and exchange information, reinforcing solidarity and mutual collaboration;
  • The ability to ‘scale-up’ local decisions, actions, and initiatives to the global level through a ‘sharing’ system that allows local assemblies to pose ideas, votes, and proposals to other assemblies in a horizontal, non-hierarchical fashion (i.e., straight from the local to the global level).

Furthermore, The Global Square should be 100% multilingual and open-source, so a community of developers can continue to add languages as well as functions.

Facebook and the other social networks have until now only offered the possibility to share and promote content. The Global Square, by contrast, should encourage the active participation of citizens, the consolidation of online working groups, the collaborative scheduling of events, the establishment of consensus, the process of participatory budgeting, and the exchange of needs, proposals and ideas – in a local and a global context – between individuals and assemblies. Furthermore, to promote the widespread uptake of the platform, the creation of a minimalist, user-friendly and aesthetically-pleasing design is of the utmost importance.

We are aware of the existence of social platforms like n-1.cc, used by the Spanish movement, yet we feel that these have a number of shortcomings. They are not very user-friendly and not universally accessible for citizens from different national backgrounds. Also, resulting from a lack of funds and time, these platforms have not been able to develop the level of complexity required to provide all the functionalities listed above. We realize that the project we are proposing is a very ambitious one. But we hope that our movement can seize this opportunity to prove once and for all that creativity, innovation and dynamism can flourish in a collaborative, non-profit framework — and that it is possible to ensure a form of participatory democracy beyond the nation state.

We believe The Global Square could make a significant contribution to the consolidation of the assemblies and the development of our global movement. It is important to note, however, that the project will require significant funding, as well as a team of full-time professional developers. As we know that Occupy Wall Street plays an exemplary role within the movement, we are turning specifically to you for help in further refining this idea and initiating the search for funds and developers for a beta-version of the platform. We would be very interested to hear your ideas, suggestions and criticisms of this proposal. We can be reached at tts@riseup.net.

Finally, we have registered a domain (theglobalsquare.org — not active yet) that we would happily share with the movement (other suggestions are, of course, very welcome too). We are looking forward to a public conversation with all of you on how to make this idea work in a way that involves and benefits all. From the local village square to the global village square — it is time for us to unite!

In solidarity,

The volunteers at:

Take the Square
United for Global Change
15october.net
European Revolution
Reflections on a Revolution