Monday, April 30, 2012

Get Sick. Can't Pay? Go to Jail!

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Indeed, you can go to jail even if you don\'t owe any money if the collection company for your medical provider thinks you do:

A breast cancer survivor who was sent to prison over a mistaken $280 medical bill has highlighted the return of debtor\'s prisons in the U.S.

Illinois resident Lisa Lindsay had received the medical bill in error and was told she did not have to pay up.

However, the bill was turned over to a collection agency and state troopers arrived at her home and took her away in handcuffs.

So, cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay eventually paid the bill she didn\'t owe + $600 for legal and court fees just to be sure this never happened to her again, or at least for this non-existent debt. Better safe than sorry, right?

At this point you might be saying to yourself, WTF? I thought the US eliminated debtors\' prisons in the early 19th century. Silly rabbit. There\'s more than one way to trick the justice system to skin people in debt using the power of the state to put them in jail as a way to coerce payments from people like Lisa.

The case of Lindsay as well as others suggests that more people than ever before in the U.S are being thrown in \'debtor\'s prisons\' for not being able to pay back loans. [...]

Debt collectors have become so aggressive claim some that poor people who are behind on payments of as little as $25 a month are being sent to jail.[...]

How is this done? Well the collection company files a small claims lawsuit. If you fail to appear, or file a responsive pleading, or make some other common legal mistake, or simply have the collection agency claim they served you by mail (allowed in many cases where the claims are not large) when they really didn\'t because you\'ve moved, where in the hospital at the time, or they just flat out lied in their affidavit of service, the court can hold you in contempt of court. And that\'s when the sheriff deputies or state troopers may show up at your door to place those handcuffs on you, sick, disabled or whatever.

Acting within the law, debtors aren\'t arrested for nonpayment, rather for failing to arrive to court hearings thereby falling foul of contempt of court laws. This results in a police arrest warrant being issued for \'failure to appear\', the debtor is tracked down, packed off to jail and can only get out by paying the set bail bond which of course matches the amount owed.

Of course not every state allows such practices, but many do. And while it has been employed against many people who have fallen behind on paying their bills in this economy, the arrest of people who can\'t pay their medical bills because they lost health insurance or their jobs, or simply they have student debt. they cannot repay because they can\'t find a job, is particularly egregious.

And people wonder why privatization of prisons is increasing. Well, when you can toss people in jail for almost anything, including the inability to pay their debts, prisons become an even bigger profit center. Last year alone, thousands of individuals were jailed as a result of unscrupulous practices by collection companies like the one that sent Lisa Lindsay to jail for a $280 debt she didn\'t even owe:

NPR reports that it’s becoming increasingly common for people to serve jail time as a result of their debt. Because of “sloppy, incomplete or even false documentation,” many borrowers facing jail time don’t even know they’re being sued by creditors ... Sean Matthews, a homeless New Orleans construction worker, was incarcerated for five months for $498 of legal debt, while his jail time cost the city six times that much. Some debtors are even forced to pay for their jail time themselves, adding to their financial troubles.

Stories of surprise arrests for unpaid debt have been reported in states including Indiana, Tennessee and Washington. In Kansas City, one man ended up in jail after missing only a furniture payment. The Federal Trade Commission received more than 140,000 complaints related to debt collection in 2010, and they’ve taken 10 debt collection agencies to court for their practices in the past three years.

Since the start of 2010, judges have signed off on more than 5,000 arrest warrants since in nine counties alone. Beverly Yang, a legal aid attorney, says many debtor’s — and judges — don’t know debtor’s rights, which results in the accused being intimidated into a pay agreement. She’s seen judges interrogate debtors about why they can’t pay more and whether they are trying hard enough to find a job.

From the NPR report:

Take, for example, what happened to Robin Sanders in Illinois.

She was driving home when an officer pulled her over for having a loud muffler. But instead of sending her off with a warning, the officer arrested Sanders, and she was taken right to jail.

"That\'s when I found out [that] I had a warrant for failure to appear in Macoupin County. And I didn\'t know what it was about."

Sanders owed $730 on a medical bill. She says she didn\'t even know a collection agency had filed a lawsuit against her.

"They say they send out these court notices, and nobody gets them," Sanders says.

We are talking about collection companies, after all. The scum of the earth. They buy the debts for pennies on the dollar. Then they file lawsuits. They don\'t care if they have to lie or present false paperwork to the courts, because in most cases they are never going to be found out. They file their affidavits and the justice system believes them, because they do not have the time or personnel to verify the accuracy of those affidavits, and the people they target do not have the money to fight the illegal practices by hiring a lawyer. And it is difficult to prove a negative, i.e., that you didn\'t receive notice of the court date as we all know:

Washington state\'s House of Representatives passed [in 2011] by a 98-0 vote a bill that would require companies to provide proof a borrower has been notified about lawsuits against them before a judge could issue an arrest warrant. All 42 Republicans voted for the legislation, which is expected to pass the state\'s Senate and be signed into law by the governor. A trade group representing debt collectors supports the bill and says the changes are needed because some companies are abusing Washington\'s existing law by improperly arresting borrowers.

Look for more of these abuses in the future, particularly in states where the legislature is controlled by Republicans and the governor is a Scott Walker (ALEC Model 2.0) clone.

Mother Wins Top Environmental Award for Beating Monsanto

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After experiencing the traumatizing death of her daughter to kidney failure just three days after her daughter was born, Sofia Gatica from Argentina became determined to find out what killed her daughter. Her conclusion? Monsanto’s genetically modified soy fields that surrounded her neighborhood, laced with damaging insecticides negatively affecting nearby neighborhood children and adults alike. Gatica began to detail how her small town was plagued with astronomically high birth defect rates, respiratory disease, and even infant mortality.

From this point, the courageous mother decided to take on Monsanto. Amazingly, she is not alone in her struggle against the biotechnology colossus when it comes to causing birth problems, as a large group of farmers — also from Argentina — have launched a lawsuit against Monsanto for causing ‘devastating birth defects‘ in children. Gatica was initially alone, however, when she first began her uphill battle. Forming a group of concerned mothers in her local area of Ituzaingó after hosting an event at her home to discuss her experiences, the mother would be one of the very few who has actually beat Monsanto.

After sharing her story with local mothers who were also concerned for the safety of their children and families as a whole, Gatica co-founded the Mothers of Ituzaingó — an action group of 16 mothers collaborating to end Monsanto’s rampant chemical usage. The team took to the streets, going door to door to create what was the first epidemiological study of the area, only to discover that the effects of Monsanto’s concoctions were dramatically affecting many families in the town of Ituzaingó. With cancer rates 41 times the national average, something had to be done.

As a result of the serious campaign to eradicate Monsanto, the mothers were rewarded. Argentina’s Supreme Court not only banned chemical spraying near populated areas, but demanded that the government as well as soy manufacturers now prove that these chemicals are safe. Sofia Gatica is now being honored for her great environmental work with the Goldman Environmental prize, a major environmental award given to activists. The story shows just how serious activism can take down most any threat — even Monsanto.

Welcome to the Asylum

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When civilizations start to die they go insane. Let the ice sheets in the Arctic melt. Let the temperatures rise. Let the air, soil and water be poisoned. Let the forests die. Let the seas be emptied of life. Let one useless war after another be waged. Let the masses be thrust into extreme poverty and left without jobs while the elites, drunk on hedonism, accumulate vast fortunes through exploitation, speculation, fraud and theft. Reality, at the end, gets unplugged. We live in an age when news consists of Snooki’s pregnancy, Hulk Hogan’s sex tape and Kim Kardashian’s denial that she is the naked woman cooking eggs in a photo circulating on the Internet. Politicians, including presidents, appear on late night comedy shows to do gags and they campaign on issues such as creating a moon colony. “At times when the page is turning,” Louis-Ferdinand Celine wrote in “Castle to Castle,” “when History brings all the nuts together, opens its Epic Dance Halls! hats and heads in the whirlwind! Panties overboard!”

The quest by a bankrupt elite in the final days of empire to accumulate greater and greater wealth, as Karl Marx observed, is modern society’s version of primitive fetishism. This quest, as there is less and less to exploit, leads to mounting repression, increased human suffering, a collapse of infrastructure and, finally, collective death. It is the self-deluded, those on Wall Street or among the political elite, those who entertain and inform us, those who lack the capacity to question the lusts that will ensure our self-annihilation, who are held up as exemplars of intelligence, success and progress. The World Health Organization calculates that one in four people in the United States suffers from chronic anxiety, a mood disorder or depression—which seems to me to be a normal reaction to our march toward collective suicide. Welcome to the asylum.

When the most basic elements that sustain life are reduced to a cash product, life has no intrinsic value. The extinguishing of “primitive” societies, those that were defined by animism and mysticism, those that celebrated ambiguity and mystery, those that respected the centrality of the human imagination, removed the only ideological counterweight to a self-devouring capitalist ideology. Those who held on to pre-modern beliefs, such as Native Americans, who structured themselves around a communal life and self-sacrifice rather than hoarding and wage exploitation, could not be accommodated within the ethic of capitalist exploitation, the cult of the self and the lust for imperial expansion. The prosaic was pitted against the allegorical. And as we race toward the collapse of the planet’s ecosystem we must restore this older vision of life if we are to survive.

The war on the Native Americans, like the wars waged by colonialists around the globe, was waged to eradicate not only a people but a competing ethic. The older form of human community was antithetical and hostile to capitalism, the primacy of the technological state and the demands of empire. This struggle between belief systems was not lost on Marx. “The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx” is a series of observations derived from Marx’s reading of works by historians and anthropologists. He took notes about the traditions, practices, social structure, economic systems and beliefs of numerous indigenous cultures targeted for destruction. Marx noted arcane details about the formation of Native American society, but also that “lands [were] owned by the tribes in common, while tenement-houses [were] owned jointly by their occupants.” He wrote of the Aztecs, “Commune tenure of lands; Life in large households composed of a number of related families.” He went on, “… reasons for believing they practiced communism in living in the household.” Native Americans, especially the Iroquois, provided the governing model for the union of the American colonies, and also proved vital to Marx and Engel’s vision of communism.

Marx, though he placed a naive faith in the power of the state to create his workers’ utopia and discounted important social and cultural forces outside of economics, was acutely aware that something essential to human dignity and independence had been lost with the destruction of pre-modern societies. The Iroquois Council of the Gens, where Indians came together to be heard as ancient Athenians did, was, Marx noted, a “democratic assembly where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it.” Marx lauded the active participation of women in tribal affairs, writing, “The women [were] allowed to express their wishes and opinions through an orator of their own election. Decision given by the Council. Unanimity was a fundamental law of its action among the Iroquois.” European women on the Continent and in the colonies had no equivalent power.

Rebuilding this older vision of community, one based on cooperation rather than exploitation, will be as important to our survival as changing our patterns of consumption, growing food locally and ending our dependence on fossil fuels. The pre-modern societies of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse—although they were not always idyllic and performed acts of cruelty including the mutilation, torture and execution of captives—did not subordinate the sacred to the technical. The deities they worshipped were not outside of or separate from nature.

Seventeenth century European philosophy and the Enlightenment, meanwhile, exalted the separation of human beings from the natural world, a belief also embraced by the Bible. The natural world, along with those pre-modern cultures that lived in harmony with it, was seen by the industrial society of the Enlightenment as worthy only of exploitation. Descartes argued, for example, that the fullest exploitation of matter to any use was the duty of humankind. The wilderness became, in the religious language of the Puritans, satanic. It had to be Christianized and subdued. The implantation of the technical order resulted, as Richard Slotkin writes in “Regeneration Through Violence,” in the primacy of “the western man-on-the-make, the speculator, and the wildcat banker.” Davy Crockett and, later, George Armstrong Custer, Slotkin notes, became “national heroes by defining national aspiration in terms of so many bears destroyed, so much land preempted, so many trees hacked down, so many Indians and Mexicans dead in the dust.”

The demented project of endless capitalist expansion, profligate consumption, senseless exploitation and industrial growth is now imploding. Corporate hustlers are as blind to the ramifications of their self-destructive fury as were Custer, the gold speculators and the railroad magnates. They seized Indian land, killed off its inhabitants, slaughtered the buffalo herds and cut down the forests. Their heirs wage war throughout the Middle East, pollute the seas and water systems, foul the air and soil and gamble with commodities as half the globe sinks into abject poverty and misery. The Book of Revelation defines this single-minded drive for profit as handing over authority to the “beast.”

The conflation of technological advancement with human progress leads to self-worship. Reason makes possible the calculations, science and technological advances of industrial civilization, but reason does not connect us with the forces of life. A society that loses the capacity for the sacred, that lacks the power of human imagination, that cannot practice empathy, ultimately ensures its own destruction. The Native Americans understood there are powers and forces we can never control and must honor. They knew, as did the ancient Greeks, that hubris is the deadliest curse of the human race. This is a lesson that we will probably have to learn for ourselves at the cost of tremendous suffering.

In William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Prospero is stranded on an island where he becomes the undisputed lord and master. He enslaves the primitive “monster” Caliban. He employs the magical sources of power embodied in the spirit Ariel, who is of fire and air. The forces unleashed in the island’s wilderness, Shakespeare knew, could prompt us to good if we had the capacity for self-control and reverence. But it also could push us toward monstrous evil since there are few constraints to thwart plunder, rape, murder, greed and power. Later, Joseph Conrad, in his portraits of the outposts of empire, also would expose the same intoxication with barbarity.

The anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who in 1846 was “adopted” by the Seneca, one of the tribes belonging to the Iroquois confederation, wrote in “Ancient Society” about social evolution among American Indians. Marx noted approvingly, in his “Ethnological Notebooks,” Morgan’s insistence on the historical and social importance of “imagination, that great faculty so largely contributing to the elevation of mankind.” Imagination, as the Shakespearean scholar Harold C. Goddard pointed out, “is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two. ... Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.”

All that concerns itself with beauty and truth, with those forces that have the power to transform us, is being steadily extinguished by our corporate state. Art. Education. Literature. Music. Theater. Dance. Poetry. Philosophy. Religion. Journalism. None of these disciplines are worthy in the corporate state of support or compensation. These are pursuits that, even in our universities, are condemned as impractical. But it is only through the impractical, through that which can empower our imagination, that we will be rescued as a species. The prosaic world of news events, the collection of scientific and factual data, stock market statistics and the sterile recording of deeds as history do not permit us to understand the elemental speech of imagination. We will never penetrate the mystery of creation, or the meaning of existence, if we do not recover this older language. Poetry shows a man his soul, Goddard wrote, “as a looking glass does his face.” And it is our souls that the culture of imperialism, business and technology seeks to crush.

Walter Benjamin argued that capitalism is not only a formation “conditioned by religion,” but is an “essentially religious phenomenon,” albeit one that no longer seeks to connect humans with the mysterious forces of life. Capitalism, as Benjamin observed, called on human societies to embark on a ceaseless and futile quest for money and goods. This quest, he warned, perpetuates a culture dominated by guilt, a sense of inadequacy and self-loathing. It enslaves nearly all its adherents through wages, subservience to the commodity culture and debt peonage. The suffering visited on Native Americans, once Western expansion was complete, was soon endured by others, in Cuba, the Philippines, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The final chapter of this sad experiment in human history will see us sacrificed as those on the outer reaches of empire were sacrificed. There is a kind of justice to this. We profited as a nation from this demented vision, we remained passive and silent when we should have denounced the crimes committed in our name, and now that the game is up we all go down together.

Spanish Debt Crisis Pushing Global Economy To The Brink

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Barely four months after the European Central Bank (ECB) began its latest intervention into financial markets, making available a total of €1 trillion at ultra-cheap rates to cash-strapped banks, the European financial system is heading into a new crisis, with far-reaching global implications.

The renewed market turmoil is a product both of the ECB measures under its Longer Term Refinancing Operations (LTRO) and the austerity program being imposed across Europe at the insistence of the financial markets.

Since the near-default of Greece threatened to set off a meltdown of markets at the end of last year, the eye of the financial storm has shifted to Spain, Europe’s fourth largest economy. Last week it was revealed that the Spanish unemployment rate had jumped to almost 25 percent.

The leap in the jobless rate was preceded by an announcement of a credit downgrade by the rating agency Standard and Poor’s (S&P), which warned of the dangers facing Spanish banks and forecast that the economy would fall deeper into recession. The credit downgrade on Spanish debt was the third in just seven months.

“The negative outlook on the long-term rating reflects our view of the significant risks to Spain’s economic growth and budgetary performance, and the impact we believe this will likely have on the sovereign’s creditworthiness,” the S&P statement commented. It forecast that the Spanish economy would contract by 1.5 percent this year and by 0.5 percent in 2013, after an earlier forecast of a 0.3 percent expansion in 2012 and 1 percent the following year.

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the country faced a crisis of “huge proportions” amid predictions that the Spanish banking system may need a bailout of €120 billion by end of the year.

In a clear warning to the stronger European powers, especially Germany, Garcia-Margallo likened the situation to the Titanic. “If there is a sinking here, even the first-class passengers drown,” he said.

There are fears that if the crisis in Spain continues, it will rapidly spread to Italy and the rest of Europe. Italy, the eurozone’s third largest economy, owes around €1.9 trillion, more than double the Spanish debt of €734 billion. There are also fears that France’s credit rating could be downgraded again.

The parlous state of the Spanish banks was highlighted in an International Monetary Fund (IMF) statement last week. It said that in the past four years the Spanish financial sector had experienced a crisis of “unprecedented proportion,” with significant risks arising from a real estate “boom-bust cycle.” This had exposed weaknesses in the policy and regulatory framework and an over-reliance on raising funds on financial markets rather than via deposits.

In an unusually blunt statement about Spain’s banks, the IMF commented: “To preserve financial stability, it is critical that these banks, especially the largest one, take swift and decisive measures to strengthen their balance sheets and improve management and governance practices.” The reference to “the largest” was to Bankia, a collection of seven savings banks, which are especially vulnerable because of their involvement in the collapsed real estate bubble.

However, the crisis is not merely the result of Spanish conditions. It is also the outcome of the supposed “rescue” measures put in place by the ECB through its LTRO program.

Under this policy, weak banks were provided with funds from the ECB at an interest rate of 1 percent in order to try to prevent a liquidity crisis spreading throughout the financial system. The policy was initiated last December amid warnings that Europe faced a crisis of Lehman Brothers proportions.

The ECB actions, however, did not provide a long-term solution. In fact, they have contributed to a deepening of the problems. This is because the weak banks that received funds did not use them to finance activities in the real economy but bought up sovereign debt in the hope of easy profits. As a result, the fate of the weakest banks is now ever more closely tied to the fate of governments with the biggest debt problems.

While the ECB’s actions provided a short-term boost to financial markets in the first four months of this year, the turmoil has re-emerged in an even more virulent form. Concerns grow that the banks are running out of money to buy government debt.

These fears are reflected in the recent spike in interest rates on Spanish and Italian government debt. The interest rate on Spanish debt has approached the critical level of 6 percent in recent days. The rates on Italian bonds, which fell to 4.5 percent in March after touching 7 percent in January, are now back up to 5.63 percent.

Hedge funds are reported to be betting against the Eurozone economies because they consider that the increase in liquidity does not provide any durable solution. According to a report in the Financial Times, a growing number of hedge funds “are directly wagering that Europe’s problems have become so entrenched that they will lead to a much more serious crisis in the coming months than the Eurozone has experienced.”

The financial uncertainty has been exacerbated by the austerity programs that are pushing the European economy deeper into recession, setting up a negative feedback loop. As economic growth declines, tax receipts fall, leading to a worsening debt situation and a further rise in the interest rates on government bonds.

Spain exemplifies this process. Tax receipts are estimated to be down by almost €1 trillion as a result of the loss of 374,300 jobs in the first three months of this year. At the same time, Spanish banks are estimated to have borrowed €316 billion from the ECB, equivalent to 11 percent of their total balance sheet. Anything over 10 percent is regarded as a “tipping point,” after which the injection of additional funds is needed.

Reflecting the fears of US financial institutions, former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, in a comment published in today’s Financial Times, warned that the ECB’s provision of liquidity had been little more than a palliative. “Weak banks, especially in Spain, have bought more of the debt of their weak sovereigns while foreigners have sold down their holdings. Markets see banks grow ever more nervous. Again, both Europe and the global economy approach the brink.”

The impact of the Spanish crisis will extend beyond Europe and the US. Last week, in a report on Asia, the IMF said the global economy remained “unusually vulnerable” and further “setbacks” would have “great repercussions” for Asia. “In particular, a sharp fall in exports to advanced economies and a reversal of capital flows would severely impact activity in the region.”

There are signs that the reversal of funds has already started. The Bank for International Settlements released figures showing that European banks withdrew $100 billion in lending to Asia in the last three months of 2011.

Why Low Minimum Wages Kill Jobs and Crush Living Standards for Everyone

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Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, has introduced a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $9.80 from its present level of $7.25. Polls are showing many voters in favor, though they are confused about what it would mean for the job market. The truth is that a move would be good for a slow economy and have a positive impact on the jobs crisis. Naturally, this has led to the usual cries of opposition, largely based on the notion that raising the minimum wage hurts the very people it is supposed to help. Typical of this view is a letter to the New York Times from Michael Saltsman, a fellow at the Employment Policies Institute, a business-backed nonprofit research group (surprise!).

Saltsman trots out the old canards against the minimum wage, claiming that research indicates that a minimum wage increase "simply doesn’t help the poor — in fact, it hurts them." He cites studies which showed that states with their minimum wages between 2003 and 2007 found no associated decline in state poverty rates. Saltsman gives three reasons for this:

  1. A majority of working-age individuals who live in poverty don’t work, and thus cannot benefit from the raise.
  2. A clear majority of those who do earn the minimum wage live in households that aren’t in poverty.
  3. Less skilled and less experienced employees lose employment opportunities when the cost to hire and train them rises as a result of a minimum-wage increase.

Let’s take these arguments in turn. Implicit in the first point is that a majority of working-age individuals don’t work because they choose not to (i.e. they are lazy scroungers), or because unemployment is caused by laziness or lack of training. The argument they often use is that “I can get a job, therefore all the unemployed could get jobs if only they tried harder, or got better education and training.”

The way I go about demonstrating that fallacy is a dogs-and-bones example. Say we have 10 dogs and we bury nine bones in the backyard. We send the dogs out to find bones. At least one dog will come back without a bone.

We decide that the problem is lack of training. We put that dog through rigorous training in the latest bone-finding techniques. We bury nine bones and send the 10 dogs out again. The trained dog ends up with a bone, but some other dog comes back without a bone (empty-mouthed, so to speak).

The problem is that there are not enough bones and jobs to go around. The “bones” in the jobs discussion are insufficient spending power in the economy. It is certainly true that a well-trained and highly motivated jobseeker can usually find a job. But that is no evidence that aggregate unemployment is caused by laziness or lack of training. And besides, we could easily determine how much unemployment is truly voluntary. The government could serve as the “employer of last resort” under a job guarantee program modeled on the WPA (the Works Progress Administration, in existence from 1935 to 1943) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942). The program would offer a job to any American who was ready and willing to work at the federal minimum wage, plus legislated benefits. No time limits. No means testing. No minimum education or skill requirements.

It's hard to believe that reducing or even eliminating the minimum wage (which is the corollary of Saltsman’s point), would actually enhance employment, when the problem is a basic lack of demand. Business will not hire more workers until it has more sales. Consumers will not spend more until they’ve got more jobs. A private-sector recovery requires 300,000 new jobs every month. But the private sector doesn’t need 300,000 new workers per month until there exists sufficient spending power in the economy to induce them to hire those workers. How is retaining a static, or reduced minimum wage, going to achieve this?

Higher wages means higher income and thus higher consumption spending, which induces firms to employ more labor. So the truth is that economic theory does not tell us that raising minimum wages will lead to more unemployment, indeed, theory tells us it can go the other way—raising the minimum wage could increase employment. That’s one of the reasons why Henry Ford believed in paying his workers a decent wage: so that they could buy his product.

To be sure, even an increase in the minimum wage to $12 or $15 an hour is not going to provide the means to purchase a Ford (or GM) today. And so what if, as Saltsman argues, the workers earning this minimum wage are not living in poverty? Does that mean they wouldn’t spend the money derived from an increased minimum wage? I wonder if Saltsman would also argue that tax cuts across the board are unnecessary because most of the people who receive them are not living in poverty?

That argument is a red herring. The truth is, if you earn your money through wages (unlike many of the 1 percent, who earn through things like investments and a tax system biased in favor of capital gains over income) then a higher wage, minimum or otherwise, would mean that you'd spend the additional dollars, creating jobs for other workers. You'd pay down your mortgages and car loans, getting yourself out of debt. You’d pay more taxes — on sales and property, mostly — thereby relieving the fiscal crises of states and localities. More teachers, police and firefighters would keep their jobs. America would get a virtuous cycle toward higher employment and, more importantly, the cycle would be based on a policy which creates higher incomes, not higher debt via credit expansion.

Then there's the common belief that minimum wages cause unemployment, which relates to Saltman’s third point – namely that less skilled and less experienced employees lose employment opportunities when the cost to hire and train them rises as a result of a minimum-wage increase. It is at least partly true that for an individual firm, higher wages reduce the number of workers hired. But we cannot extrapolate that to the economy as a whole. The issue of eroding wage competitiveness, which allegedly follows from a higher minimum wage, doesn’t really apply to jobs which offer the minimum wage. It might apply to areas such as manufactured goods and traded services like insurance and banking. But these are sectors in which most people already earn far more than the minimum wage.

As far as the minimum wage goes, the jobs we’re talking about are in non-traded services like checkout clerks, haircutters, domestic help, and food-service workers. When checkout clerks and cooks earn more in wages, then businesses start getting the sales required to induce them to hire more workers. And if sales are robust enough, then guess what? Even more workers will be hired, or wages will actually be increased.

The point is: wages are a source of demand, as well as a cost input. Reduce wages and demand plummets, which more than overrides any cost savings derived from paying less to workers (especially given today's paltry minimum wage, which is hardly a living wage for any American).

Let's be clear; Americans have never embraced welfare. For better or worse, our nation has always preferred a more libertarian path: self-help, personal responsibility, individual initiative. As a result, our welfare programs have always been stingy, temporary and purposely demeaning. But maintaining the minimum wage at today’s ridiculously depressed level does not enhance anybody’s employment prospects. In fact, it makes it worse, because it sucks demand out of the economy and minimizes the chances of those now receiving unemployment benefits or other assistance to quickly get back into the workforce, to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps," as conservatives like to say. They cannot do that when our work force continues to focus on policies which merely enhance the incomes of the top 1 percent.

U.S. Amasses Stealth-Jet Armada Near Iran

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The U.S. Air Force is quietly assembling the world’s most powerful air-to-air fighting team at bases near Iran. Stealthy F-22 Raptors on their first front-line deployment have joined a potent mix of active-duty and Air National Guard F-15 Eagles, including some fitted with the latest advanced radars. The Raptor-Eagle team has been honing special tactics for clearing the air of Iranian fighters in the event of war.

The fighters join a growing naval armada that includes Navy carriers, submarines, cruisers and destroyers plus patrol boats and minesweepers enhanced with the latest close-in weaponry.

It’s been years since the Air Force has maintained a significant dogfighting presence in the Middle East. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq Boeing-made F-15Cs flew air patrols from Saudi Arabia, but the Iraqi air force put up no resistance and the Eagle squadrons soon departed. For the next nine years Air Force deployments to the Middle East were handled by ground-attack planes such as A-10s, F-16s and twin-seat F-15E Strike Eagles.

The 1980s-vintage F-15Cs, plagued by structural problems, stayed home in the U.S. and Japan. The brand-new F-22s, built by Lockheed Martin, suffered their own mechanical and safety problems. When they ventured from their home bases in Virginia, Alaska and New Mexico, it was only for short training exercises over the Pacific. The F-15Cs and F-22s sat out last year’s Libya war.

The Air Force fixed the F-15s and partially patched up the F-22s just in time for the escalating stand-off over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. In March the Air Force deployed the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing, flying 20 standard F-15Cs, to an “undisclosed” air base in Southwest Asia — probably either Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates or Al Udeid in Qatar. The highly-experienced Massachusetts Guardsmen, who typically have several years more experience than their active-duty counterparts, would be ready “should Iran test the 104th,” said wing commander Col. Robert Brooks.

Upgraded F-15Cs from the 18th Wing in Japan joined the Guard Eagles. The Japan-based fighters have the latest APG-63(V)2 and (V)3 radars, manufactured by Raytheon. They’re electronically-scanned radars that radiate many individual beams from fixed antenna clusters and track more targets, faster, than old-model mechanical radars that must physically swivel back and forth. The 18th Wing is working up a fleet of 54 updated Eagles spread across two squadrons. The video above, shot by an F-15 pilot, depicts some of the wing’s training.

F-22s followed this month. “Multiple” Raptors deployed to Al Dhafra, according to Amy Butler at Aviation Week. Air Force spokesman Capt. Phil Ventura confirmed the deployment. It’s not clear where the Raptors came from. If they’re from the Alaska-based 3rd Wing, they’re the latest Increment 3.1 modelwith boosted bombing capabilities in addition to the standard air-to-air weaponry. In any event, the Middle East mission represents the first time F-22s are anywhere near a possible combat zone.

The mix of old and upgraded F-15s and ultra-modern F-22s is no accident. When the Pentagon stopped producing the nearly $400-million-a-copy Raptor after 187 units — half as many as the Air Force said it needed — the flying branch committed to keeping 250 F-15Cs in service until 2025 at the earliest. Pilots began developing team tactics for the two fighter types.

We have a woefully tiny F-22 fleet,” said Gen. Mike Hostage, the Air Force’s main fighter commander. So the flying branch worked out a system whereby large numbers of F-15s cover for small numbers of Raptors that sneak in around an enemy’s flank in full stealth mode. “Our objective is to fly in front with the F-22s, and have the persistence to stay there while the [F-22s] are conducting their [low-observable] attack,” Maj. Todd Giggy, an Eagle pilot, told Aviation Week.

One thing to look for is the presence in the Middle East of one of the Air Force’s handful of bizjets and Global Hawk drones fitted with the Northrop Grumman Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or Bacon. The F-22, once envisioned as a solitary hunter, was designed without the radio data-links that are standard on F-15s and many other jets. Instead, the Raptor has its own unique link that is incompatible with the Eagle. Bacon helps translate the radio signals so the two jet types can swap information. With a Bacon plane nearby, F-22s and F-15s can silently exchange data — for example, stealthy Raptors spotting targets for the Eagles.

It’s the methods above that the U.S. dogfighting armada would likely use to wipe out the antiquated but determined Iranian air force if the unthinkable occurred and fighting broke out. The warplanes are in place. The pilots are ready. Hopefully they won’t be needed.

Austerity Measures Leading Europe To 'Suicide', Nobel Economist Says

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Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said Europe is in a “dire” situation as a focus on austerity pushes the continent toward “suicide.”

“There has never been any successful austerity program in any large country,” Stiglitz, 69, said in Vienna on Thursday. “The European approach definitely is the least promising. I think Europe is headed to a suicide. ”

Politicians across the 27 European Union members are implementing austerity measures totaling about 450 billion euros ($600 billion) amid a sovereign-debt crisis. At the same time the debt of the euro region rose last year to the highest since the start of the single currency as governments increased borrowing to plug budget deficits and fund bailouts of fellow nations.

If Greece was the only part of Europe that was having austerity, authorities could ignore it, Stiglitz said, “but if you have UK, France, you know all the countries having austerity, it’s like a joint austerity and the economic consequences of that are going to be dire.”

While euro-area leaders “realized that austerity itself won’t work and that we need growth,” no actions have followed and “what they agreed to do last December is a recipe to ensure that it dies,” he said, referring to the euro. “The problem is that with the euro, you’ve separated out the government from the central bank and the printing presses and you’ve created a big problem,” Stiglitz said, adding that “austerity combined with the constraints of the euro are a lethal combination.”

The economist said he sees a core euro area of “one or two countries” made up of Germany and possibly the Netherlands or Finland as the “likely scenario if Europe maintains the austerity approach,” he said. “The austerity approach will lead to high levels of unemployment that will be politically unacceptable and will make deficits get worse.”

Youth unemployment in Spain has been at 50 percent since the crisis in 2008 with “no hope of things getting better anytime soon,” said Stiglitz, who is a professor for economics at Columbia University. “What you are doing is destroying the human capital, you are creating alienated young people.” To push for growth, European leaders could refocus government spending to “fully utilize” institutions like the European Investment Bank, introduce taxes to improve economic performance and use balanced budget multipliers, he said.

"We Assassinate Their leaders" John Perkins - CNBC Video












You Are All Suspects Now. What Are You Going to Do About It?

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You are all potential terrorists. It matters not that you live in Britain, the United States, Australia or the Middle East. Citizenship is effectively abolished. Turn on your computer and the US Department of Homeland Security's National Operations Center may monitor whether you are typing not merely "al-Qaeda," but "exercise," "drill," "wave," "initiative" and "organization": all proscribed words. The British government's announcement that it intends to spy on every email and phone call is old hat. The satellite vacuum cleaner known as Echelon has been doing this for years. What has changed is that a state of permanent war has been launched by the United States and a police state is consuming Western democracy.

What are you going to do about it?

In Britain, on instructions from the CIA, secret courts are to deal with "terror suspects." Habeas Corpus is dying. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that five men, including three British citizens, can be extradited to the US even though none except one has been charged with a crime. All have been imprisoned for years under the 2003 US/UK Extradition Treaty which was signed one month after the criminal invasion of Iraq. The European Court had condemned the treaty as likely to lead to "cruel and unusual punishment." One of the men, Babar Ahmad, was awarded 63,000 pounds compensation for 73 recorded injuries he sustained in the custody of the Metropolitan Police. Sexual abuse, the signature of fascism, was high on the list. Another man is a schizophrenic, who has suffered a complete mental collapse and is in Broadmoor secure hospital; another is a suicide risk. To the Land of the Free they go - along with young Richard O'Dwyer, who faces ten years in shackles and an orange jump suit because he allegedly infringed US copyright on the Internet.

As the law is politicized and Americanized, these travesties are not untypical. In upholding the conviction of a London university student, Mohammed Gul, for disseminating "terrorism" on the Internet, appeal court judges in London ruled that "acts ... against the armed forces of a state anywhere in the world which sought to influence a government and were made for political purposes" were now crimes. Call to the dock Thomas Paine, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela.

What are you going to do about it?

The prognosis is clear now: the malignancy that Norman Mailer called "pre fascist" has metastasized. The US Attorney General, Eric Holder, defends the "right" of his government to assassinate American citizens. Israel, the protégé, is allowed to aim its nukes at nukeless Iran. In this looking glass world, the lying is panoramic. The massacre of 17 Afghan civilians on 11 March, including at least nine children and four women, is attributed to a "rogue" American soldier. The "authenticity" of this was vouched by President Obama himself, who had "seen a video" and regarded it as "conclusive proof." An independent Afghan parliamentary investigation produced eyewitnesses who give detailed evidence of as many as 20 soldiers, aided by a helicopter, ravaging their villages, killing and raping: a standard, if marginally more murderous, US Special Forces "night raid."

Take away the videogame technology of killing - America's contribution to modernity - and the behavior is traditional. Immersed in comic-book righteousness, poorly or brutally trained, frequently racist, obese and led by a corrupt officer class, American forces transfer the homicide of home to faraway places whose impoverished struggles they cannot comprehend. A nation founded on the genocide of the native population never quite kicks the habit. Vietnam was "Indian country" and its "slits" and "gooks" were to be "blown away.

The blowing away of hundreds of mostly women and children in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in 1968 was also a "rogue" incident and, profanely, an "American tragedy" (the cover headline of Newsweek). Only one of 26 men prosecuted was convicted and he was let go by President Richard Nixon. My Lai is in Quang Ngai Province where, as I learned as a reporter, an estimated 50,000 people were killed by American troops, mostly in what they called "free fire zones." This was the model of modern warfare: industrial murder.

Like Iraq and Libya, Afghanistan is a theme park for the beneficiaries of America's new permanent war: NATO, the armaments and high-tech companies, the media and a "security" industry whose lucrative contamination is a contagion on everyday life. The conquest or "pacification" of territory is unimportant. What matters is the pacification of you, the cultivation of your indifference.

What are you going to do about it?

The descent into totalitarianism has landmarks. Any day now, the Supreme Court in London will decide whether WikiLeaks' editor, Julian Assange, is to be extradited to Sweden. Should this final appeal fail, the facilitator of truth-telling on an epic scale, who is charged with no crime, faces solitary confinement and interrogation on ludicrous sex allegations. Thanks to a secret deal between the US and Sweden, he can be "rendered" to the American gulag at any time. In his own country, Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has conspired with those in Washington she calls her "true mates" to ensure her innocent fellow citizen is fitted for his orange jump suit just in case he should make it home. In February, her government wrote a "WikiLeaks Amendment" to the extradition treaty between Australia and the US that makes it easier for her "mates" to get their hands on him. She has even given them the power of approval over Freedom of Information searches - so that the world outside can be lied to, as is customary.

What are you going to do about it?

May Day's Radical History: What Occupy Is Fighting for This May 1st

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American general strikes—or rather, American calls for general strikes, like the one Occupy Los Angeles issued last December that has been endorsed by over 150 general assemblies—are tinged with nostalgia.

The last real general strike in this country, which is to say, the last general strike that shut down a city, was in Oakland, California in 1946—though journalist John Nichols has suggested that what we saw in Madison, Wisconsin last year was a sort of general strike. When we call a general strike, or talk of one, we refer not to a current mode of organizing; we refer back, implicitly or explicitly, to some of the most militant moments in American working-class history. People posting on the Occupy strike blog How I Strike have suggested that next week’s May Day is highly symbolic. As we think about and develop new ways of “general striking,” we also reconnect with a past we've mostly forgotten.

So it makes sense that this year’s call for an Occupy general strike—whatever ends up happening on Tuesday—falls on May 1. May Day is a beautifully American holiday, one created by American workers, crushed by the American government, incubated abroad, and returned to the United States by immigrant workers.

The history of May 1 as a workers’ holiday is intimately tied to the generations-long movement for the eight-hour day, to immigrant workers, to police brutality and repression of the labor movement, and to the long tradition of American anarchism.

Perhaps the first nation-wide labor movement in the United States started in 1864, when workers began to agitate for an eight-hour day. This was, in their understanding, a natural outgrowth of the abolition of slavery; a limited work day allowed workers to spend more time with their families, to pursue education, and to enjoy leisure time. In other words, a shorter work day meant freedom. It was not for nothing that in 1866, workers celebrated the Fourth of July by singing “John Brown’s Body” with new lyrics demanding an eight-hour day. Agitating for shorter hours became a broad-based mass movement, and skilled and unskilled workers organized together. The movement would allow no racial, national or even religious divisions. Workers built specific organizations—Eight Hour Leagues—but they also used that momentum to establish new unions and strengthen old ones. That year, the Eight Hour Movement gained its first legislative victory when Illinois passed a law limiting work hours.

The demand for an eight-hour day was about leisure, self-improvement and freedom, but it was also about power. When Eight Hour Leagues agitated for legislation requiring short hours, they were demanding what had never before happened: that the government regulate industry for the advantage of workers. And when workers sought to enforce the eight-hour day without the government—through declaring for themselves, through their unions, under what conditions they would work—they sought something still more radical: control over their own workplaces. It is telling that employers would often counter a demand for shorter hours with an offer of a wage increase. Wage increases could be given (and taken away) by employers without giving up their power; agreeing to shorter hours was, employers knew, the beginning of losing their arbitrary power over their workers.

The Illinois eight-hour law was to go into effect May 1, 1867. That day, tens of thousands of Chicago’s workers celebrated in what a newspaper called “the largest procession ever seen on the streets of Chicago.” But the day after, employers, en masse, ignored the law, ordering their workers to stay the customary 10 or 11 hours. The city erupted in a general strike--workers struck, and those who didn’t leave work were forced to by gangs of their colleagues roaming through the streets, armed with sticks, dragging out scabs. After several days of the strike, the state militia arrived and occupied working-class neighborhoods. By May 8, employers and the state they controlled had won, and workers went back to work with their long hours. The loss of the eight-hour-day movement led also to a massive decline in unions, and the labor movement would not pick up in such numbers for almost two decades.

The Illinois law and its defeat, however, were not forgotten. By the 1880s, a new labor movement had grown up in Chicago. This one was more radical and was dominated by immigrant workers from Germany. They remembered 1877, when a strike by railroad workers spread around the country. For a brief moment, as strikers took control of St. Louis and Pittsburgh, staring down the national guard and local police, nobody knew what would happen. But President Rutherford B. Hayes called out the army and brutally repressed the strike. They also remembered the state was rarely if ever on the side of the worker. Yet they also remembered the brief shining moment when it appeared that there might be an eight-hour day.

So in 1886, the Chicago Central Labor Union again demanded an eight-hour day. Led largely by anarchists like August Spies and Albert Parsons, this renewed movement demanded “eight for 10”--that is, eight hours’ work for 10 hours’ pay. Throughout the winter of 1886, they successfully organized and won a series of small victories, largely in German butchers’ shops, breweries and bakeries, where owners agreed to recognize unions and grant shorter hours. Then they issued a new demand: that again on May 1, Chicago would go on a general strike and not return to work unless employers agreed to an eight-hour workday.

The demands of the militant Chicago anarchists coincided with a massive upswing in other militant movements. Workers and Texas farmers were rebelling against a monopolistic railroad system. The Knights of Labor were rapidly organizing and spreading their vision of a cooperative, rather than capitalistic, society. “What happened on May 1, 1886,” writes James Green, the most recent and most accessible historian to have written about it, “was more than a general strike; it was a ‘populist moment’ when working people believed they could destroy plutocracy, redeem democracy and then create a new ‘cooperative commonwealth.’”

Four days later, it all came crashing down. On May 3, police had shot to death six strikers at the McCormick Works, where a long-standing labor dispute had turned the factory into an armed camp, and beaten dozens more. On May 4, anarchists held an outdoor indignation meeting at a square called the Haymarket to protest the police murders. Anarchist leader Samuel Fielden was wrapping up his speech when the police, led by the same inspector who had led the charge at McCormick the night before, moved in to disperse the crowd. “But we are peaceable!” Fielden cried, and just then somebody wasn’t. Somebody threw a bomb at the police, the police open fire, and the course of American history changed.

To this day we do not know, nor will we likely ever know, who threw the bomb. Some say it was an agent provocateur. Some say it was an anarchist. If it wasn’t an anarchist, it surely could have been, since there were indeed anarchists who made bombs and would have thrown one given the opportunity. But we also know that many of those who died that night, including police, were felled by the police bullets.

We also know that the effect of the Haymarket bombing was far greater on the labor movement than it was on the police. Eight anarchist leaders were rounded up and put on trial for the murder of a police officer. No evidence was ever given that any of them threw the bomb, and only the flimsiest evidence was presented that any of them were remotely involved. All eight were convicted, and seven were sentenced to hang. Two of these had their sentences commuted, and a third—Louis Lingg, undoubtedly the most radical and militant of them—cheated the hangman by chewing a detonator cap and blowing off his jaw. The remaining four—August Spies, Albert Parsons, Samuel Fischer, and George Engel—were hanged on November 11, 1887. They went to their deaths singing the Marseillaise, then an anthem of the international revolutionary movement, and before he died, Spies shouted out his famous last words: “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

Before that happened, the state ensured more silence. The strike collapsed. Police around the country raided radicals’ homes and newspapers. The Knights of Labor never recovered. In the place of the radical industrial labor movement of the mid-1880s rose the American Federation of Labor, the much more exclusive and conservative organization that would dominate the labor movement until the 1930s. Meanwhile, it would take until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to finally enshrine the eight-hour day into federal law.

May 1 would live on, mostly abroad. In 1889, French syndicalist Raymond Lavigne proposed to the Second International—the international and internationalist coalition of socialist parties—that May 1 be celebrated internationally the next year to honor the Haymarket Martyrs and demand the eight-hour day, and the year after that the International adopted the day as an international workers’ holiday. In countries with strong socialist and communist traditions, May 1 became the primary day to celebrate work, workers and their organizations, often with direct and explicit reference to the Haymarket Martyrs. May Day remains an official holiday in countries ranging from Argentina to India to Malaysia to Croatia—and dozens of countries in between.

Yet in the United States, with some exception, the workers’ tradition of May 1 died out. Partially this was because the Knights of Labor had already established a labor day in September. Opportunistic politicians, most notably Grover Cleveland, glommed onto the Knights’ holiday in order to diminish the symbolic power of May 1. In 1921, May Day was declared “Americanization Day,” and later “Loyalty Day” in a deliberately ironic attempt to co-opt the holiday. Even that was not enough, though, and in 1958 Dwight Eisenhower added “Law Day” to the mix, presumably a deliberate jibe at the Haymarket anarchists who declared, “All law is slavery.” Today, few if any Americans celebrate Loyalty Day or Law Day—although both are on the books—but the origins of May Day are largely forgotten. Like International Women’s Day (March 8), which also originated in the U.S., International Workers’ Day became a holiday the rest of the world celebrates while Americans look on in confusion, if they notice at all.

Yet May 1 lives on, and indeed has been rejuvenated in the United States in the past few years. In 2006, immigrant activists organized “a day without an immigrant,” a nationwide strike of immigrant workers and rallies. It was perhaps the largest demonstration of workers in United States history. These immigrants, mostly from Latin America, had brought May 1 back to its birthplace, and in so doing they resurrected its history as a day specifically for immigrant workers.

It is appropriate that when the Occupy L. A. first issued its call for a general strike this May 1, it said the strike was “for migrant rights, jobs for all, a moratorium on foreclosures, and peace.” The order was significant, for migrants in the United States have been the ones who have made sure that the voices the state strangled that November day have remained so powerful. And regardless of what happens on Tuesday—and of course an actual general strike, in which cities grind to a halt and workers control what activities occur, is unlikely—we can, through a national day of action for the working class, work toward a new cooperative commonweath. We have a opportunity now to create and renew the labor movement, through new tactics, but ones that pay homage to the generations that preceded us.

Republicans Want to Axe Food Stamps to Preserve Exorbitant Military Budget

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The latest Republican plan to reconcile the budget and preserve defense spending extracts even deeper cuts from programs to help the poor and Americans still reeling from the recession.

Although spending levels for the budget were set in the Budget Control Act passed last summer in the deal to raise the nation's debt limit, Republicans are pushing ahead with another plan that cuts more while trying to prevent the beginning of $600 billion in cuts over 10 years to the growth of the defense budget.

They are doing so because the Super Committee, which was supposed to find $1.2 trillion in cuts on which everyone could agree, failed, leaving the slashing up to a pre-agreed sequestration plan that extracts half the savings from the military.

Unless Congress acts, the sequestration begins at the start of 2013. Democrats in the Senate are arguing that the Budget Control Act counts as a budget, and therefore they won't take up debate on a spending plan for 2013, much less address Rep. Paul Ryan's House budget resolution.

So instead, the House has embarked on a seldom-used reconciliation process. Its aim is to have at hand an alternative to the sequestration on the theory that the Senate will not want to allow the defense cuts either, and won't have its own plan.

In a memo sent to members Wednesday instructing them how to write their reconciliation bill, Republicans picked a number of targets, including extracting $80 billion from federal workers and $44 billion from health care. In all, it identifies $78 billion to cut in 2013, and details around $300 billion over 10 years.

But the memo spends the most time targeting the exploding cost of food stamps, on which more Americans rely than ever, at greater expense to the government than ever before.

Each month during fiscal 2011, an average of 45 million mostly poor Americans received benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, at a cost of $78 billion to the federal government. Last year's SNAP participation represented a 70 percent increase from 2007, and the highest enrollment the program has ever seen. In that time, the cost of the program more than doubled.

The Congressional Budget Office, which issued a report on SNAP last week, expects enrollment to keep going up through 2014 before it levels off.

Two-thirds of the growth in the cost of the program was a result of increased eligibility -- and therefore increased enrollment thanks to the crashing economy. A fifth of the higher cost came from a boost in benefits provided by President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus bill. Rising food prices and lower incomes among enrollees -- requiring larger benefits -- accounted for the rest.

Republicans want to take away the stimulus boost this year, saving $5.9 billion over 10 years. They note that Democrats were first to raid the extra stimulus funding for SNAP in order to pay for other bills, including a child nutrition bill that was a priority of first lady Michelle Obama's. Democrats promised to put the money back, but that seems unlikely.

Another way Republicans want to save money on food stamps is by restricting automatic eligibility for those already qualified for another program.

Three quarters of households receiving food stamps were "categorically eligible" in 2010, according to the CBO, meaning they qualified because they received benefits from programs like Supplemental Security Income or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, informally known as welfare. Households that are categorically eligible are often subject to less stringent means testing for food stamps. And some households are eligible for SNAP because of "broad-based" categorical eligibility, meaning they receive non-cash welfare benefits that can be as insignificant as a pamphlet.

That policy borders on fraud, according to the GOP. In their proposal document, Republicans describe their plan to restrict broad-based eligibility under a header suggesting the change would be one way to "stop fraud."

"It's really misleading to call this fraud because people are eligible -- no one's doing anything fraudulent," Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, said in an interview.

Many households receiving food stamps because of broad-based eligibility could still pass SNAP income and asset tests -- states have their own rules, but the federal minimum standard is income no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty line and no more than $2,000 worth of assets -- but some would not. Restricting broad-based eligibility would cut off 1.8 million people per year and save $11.7 billion over 10 years. The savings would be higher, but some of the savings are lost because the change would increase administrative costs.

Republicans also want to shut down "Heat and Eat," which they describe as a loophole. It allows states to boost SNAP enrollees' benefit amounts if they're receiving heating assistance. About 16 states are abusing the interaction, Republicans say, by sending SNAP recipients tiny $1 or $5 checks under the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program in order to boost federal food stamp benefits. Cutting off "Heat and Eat" would save $14.3 billion over 10 years.

Advocates for the poor, see the cuts not only as an attack on poor people, but as extremely short-sighted. A key reason that advocates have pushed broad-based eligibility for years is that it cuts down on overlapping workloads for the administering agencies, and helps get people -- especially the working poor -- access to aid that they deserve under law. That aid often becomes inaccessible to people who don't have the time or knowledge to deal with multiple bureaucracies.

"The reason that it was put in place was because there were so many households who weren't able to meet the paperwork requirements, or frankly, because so many stressed caseworkers weren't necessarily helping clients get the full benefit of the value that they could," said Stacy Dean, a spokesperson for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, referring to the Heat and Eat provisions. She also argued that ending the broader cross-eligibility standards would only mean local governments have to hire more people to do the same work while making it harder for people to navigate the system.

"It's redundant and wasteful, and it's just a barrier to eligible, needy people getting the benefits for which they are eligible," Dean said.

While SNAP rolls are expected to start falling after 2014, the military budget that the GOP is striving to protect will not, even with the sequester. According Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, if the sequester remains in place, the military budget will still grow by nearly 20 percent over the next decade.

With defense spending continuing to grow, advocates for the poor, like Dean, see something else in deep cuts aimed at the less fortunate.

"We believe the Ryan budget is an assault on the safety net," she said.

What Everyone Who Uses The Internet Needs To Know About CISPA

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Congress is on the cusp of passing a new bill that could threaten any internet user’s civil liberties. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, a digital equivalent of allowing the government to fight perceived threats by monitoring which books citizens check out from the library, passed the House yesterday and will now be taken up by the Senate.

Online advocates, fresh off their victory against the Stop Online Piracy Act, are now gearing up to oppose CISPA because of the disastrous effect the bill could have for private information on the internet. The bill’s opponents argue that it goes too far in the name of cybersecurity, endangering citizens’ personal online information by giving the government access to anything from users’ private emails to their browsing history.

As the fight in the Senate begins, here is everything you need to know about CISPA:

CISPA’s broad language will likely give the government access to anyone’s personal information with few privacy protections: CISPA allows the government access to any “information pertaining directly to a vulnerability of, or threat to, a system or network of a government or private entity.” There is little indication of what this information could include, and what it means to be ‘pertinent’ to cyber security. Without boundaries, any internet user’s personal, private information would likely be fair game for the government.

It supersedes all other provisions of the law protecting privacy: As the bill is currently written, CISPA would apply “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” In other words, privacy restrictions currently in place would not apply to CISPA. As a result, companies could disclose more personal information about users than necessary. Ars Technica writes, “if a company decides that your private emails, your browsing history, your health care records, or any other information would be helpful in dealing with a ‘cyber threat,’ the company can ignore laws that would otherwise limit its disclosure.”

The bill completely exempts itself from the Freedom of Information Act: Citizens and journalists have access to most things the government does via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a key tool for increasing transparency. However, CISPA completely exempts itself from FOIA requests. The Sunlight Foundation blasted CISPA for “entirely” dismissing FOIA’s “fundamental safeguard for public oversight of government’s activities.”

CISPA gives companies blanket immunity from future lawsuits: One of the most egregious aspects of CISPA is that it gives blanket legal immunity to any company that shares its customers’ private information. In other words, if Microsoft were to share your browsing history with the government despite your posing no security threat, you would be barred from filing a lawsuit against them. Without any legal recourse for citizens to take against corporate bad behavior, companies will be far more inclined to share private information.

Recent revisions don’t go nearly far enough: In an attempt to specify how the government can use the information they collect, the House passed an amendment saying the data can only be used for: “1) cybersecurity; 2) investigation and prosecution of cybersecurity crimes; 3) protection of individuals from the danger of death or physical injury; 4) protection of minors from physical or psychological harm; and 5) protection of the national security of the United States.” This new version still “suffers from most of the same problems that plagued the original version,” writes Timothy Lee. Because terms like “cybersecurity” are so vague, the bill’s language could encompass almost anything.

Citizens have to trust that companies like Facebook won’t share your personal information: CISPA does not force companies share private user information with the government. That being said, Ars Technica makes the point that “the government has a variety of carrots and sticks it can use to induce private firms to share information it wants.” For instance, many companies receive federal contracts or subsidies and would be hesitant to deny any request from the government that might jeopardize future business. Companies may not be legally required to turn over information, but they “may not be in a position to say no.”

Companies can already inform the government and each other about incoming cybersecurity threats: While proponents of CISPA claim it’s needed to allow agencies and companies to share information about incoming cybersecurity threats, opponents of the bill point out that “network administrators and security researchers at private firms have shared threat information with one another for decades.”

The internet is fighting back: The same online activists who fought hard against SOPA are now engaged in the battle over CISPA. Over 770,000 people have signed a petition by the online organizing group Avaaz that asks Congress to defeat the bill. Reddit, the news-sharing internet community that helped lead the fight against SOPA, is organizing againaround CISPA.

Most Republicans support CISPA, while most Democrats oppose it: The House passed CISPA on April 26 on a mostly-party-line vote, 248-168. Among congressmen that voted, 88 percent of Republicans supported the bill while 77 percent of Democrats opposed it.

President Obama threatened to veto it: Recognizing the threat to civil liberties that CISPA poses, President Obama announced this week that he “strongly opposes” the bill and has threatened to veto if it comes to his desk. Obama singled out the provisions that allow for blanket legal immunity and do not enough to safeguard citizens’ private information.