Monday, June 4, 2012

Florida Defies DOJ Order To Stop Purging Voter Rolls

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Florida says it will defy an order from the US justice department to stop purging its voter roll of people the state claims may not be American citizens.

The justice department has warned that the practice, which critics describe as “voter suppression” by Florida’s Republican administration aimed at stripping the ballot from people more likely to support Democrats, is illegal under federal laws.

It has given the state until Wednesday to agree to halt the purge, something officials in Florida say they have no intention of doing.

Federal authorities say that the state is obliged to get justice department approval for changes to its voting laws under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was introduced to end practices that prevented African Americans from exercising their democratic right in many southern states.

The justice department also said that the purge appears to violate a federal law stopping voters being removed from the rolls less than 90 days before an election. Florida holds primaries in mid-August.

But Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida secretary of state, said the purge will continue.

“We have a year-round obligation to make sure the voter rolls are accurate. We are going to continue forward and do everything that we can legally do to make sure that ineligible voters cannot vote,” he said.

The justice department move comes after the attorney general, Eric Holder, last week warned that gains of the civil rights struggle hang in the balance in the face of a determined effort by many states to roll back laws ensuring the right to vote.

He said that there is a “growing need to protect the voting rights of every eligible citizen” amid a flurry of legislation and executive orders in US states ostensibly to prevent election fraud with measures such as requiring proof of identity in order to vote.

Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, has justified the purging of the voters roll as necessary to prevent fraud by people who are not American citizens. But there is little evidence that this has been a significant problem in the past and the effect has been to remove many people who are entitled to vote.

Although the numbers in Florida are relatively small they could prove important in November’s presidential election. Barack Obama probably has to win the state if he is to hold on to office.

In 2000, George W Bush won the White House after taking Florida by a majority of just 537 votes leading to a bitter fight that went all the way to the supreme court amid accusations that the state authorities had weighted the system against his Democratic rival, Al Gore.

This year Florida has notified more than 2,600 registered voters that they may not be entitled to be on the electoral roll. The Miami Herald reported that in Miami-Dade County so far 385 people who were removed from the roll have been shown to be citizens while just 10 have not.

Those tasked with purging the rolls compares voter lists with driving licence files, which record citizenship. But critics say that system is flawed in part because many people obtain citizenship after applying for a driving licence.

Among those wrongly removed from the voter roll was Bill Internicola who was born in New York 91 years ago and earned a medal in the Battle of the Bulge during the second world war.

Florida authorities sent him a letter in May saying that it had received information that he was not a US citizen. The onus was then on Internicola and others who received similar letters to prove they have the right to vote. Internicola is a Democrat.

A Florida member of Congress, Alcee Hastings, described the state’s purge of the electoral roll as “voter suppression”.

The lone Democratic party senator in Florida, Bill Nelson, wrote to Scott saying that the move will be seen as an attempt to discourage ethnic minorities and the young from voting. Polls show they are more likely to support Democrats.

“Attempts to purge the voter roll so soon after signing one of the nation’s most controversial voting laws raises concern, especially among young and minority voters,” he said.

The Democratic party chairman in Florida’s Broward county, Mitch Ceasar, acknowledged that the numbers of people affected are relatively small but said the purge of the voters roll is part of a broader assault in Republican-controlled states on voting rights.

“It’s not by accident that Florida is doing this and all these other states that have Republican governors are doing it,” he told the Miami Herald. “The odds are too high that they had the same independent thought of each other.”

Last week, a federal judge struck down another part of Florida’s recent election law which critics said was aimed at deterring voter registration groups from signing up electors.

The judge called the law “harsh and impractical” for requiring the groups to turn in registration forms within 48 hours of their completion or face large fines. The deadline was almost impossible to meet if the forms were sent in the post, as is common.

The League of Women Voters, one of the groups which took legal action over the law, said that the requirements had forced it to halt voter registration drives in Florida after 72 years.

In an editorial on Sunday, the Miami Herald called for an end to the purge of the voter roll, saying it was undemocratic.

It said that the Republicans claim to be preventing a problem that there is no evidence exists.

“It carries the stench of voter suppression in a presidential election year when Florida is among a handful of swing states key to victory for either President Obama or his Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney,” it said.

“Florida seems to be heading back to those “Flori-duh” days of purging voters who have every right to vote and finding ways to limit young people, immigrants and minorities – who typically lean Democrat – from voting with onerous rules on voter-registration drives.”

Louisiana GOP Spirals Into Chaos As Ron Paul Delegates Injured, Arrested

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Several supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) sustained injuries while being arrested during the Louisiana Republican Party’s state convention over the weekend, in a conflict that engulfed the meeting after Paul’s supporters overwhelmed other delegates and voted in new leadership, only to be ignored.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) won the Louisiana primary and received 10 delegates, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) took second, earning five delegates along with it. Paul finished fourth in the primary, behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), but his supporters dominated the state’s caucusing process in April, meaning he stood to gain as many as 30 delegates at the state convention.

And with an audience widely stacked in his favor on Saturday, it seemed likely that Paul would again emerge from a state convention the unexpected victor… That is, until the LAGOP chairman turned the process on its head.

The conflict hinged upon an alleged violation of the state party’s rules by Chairman Roger Francis Villere, Jr., who’s headed up the LAGOP since 2004. Paul supporters claim he called upon a former Rules Committee chairman, who had been defeated the night prior, in order to implement rules that would marginalize Paul’s delegates. That’s when Alex Helwig, a Paul supporter who’d claimed he had won the race to chair the rules committee, stood up and objected to the chairman’s actions, only to be ignored.

As Helwig’s protest continued, cameras caught Villere saying: “This is not debatable. He is the chairman of the rules committee. I would ask you to sit down. We told you to sit down… I’m going to ask you to be seated, or I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m going to have you escorted out if you don’t leave.”

“Mr. Villere, with all due respect, it pains me to do this,” Helwig responded. “I supported you in your run for Lt. Governor. You are a good man.”

“This is not debatable,” Villere replied. “I don’t need this.”

In a video published to YouTube, police officers seize Helwig by both arms and drag him out of the room, breaking several of his fingers in the process, according to Ron Paul 2012 press release. It all transpired as as the crowd chanted: “The chairman must remove! The chairman must remove!”

That’s when the convention split.

Paul delegates moved to request more information on the chairman’s decision, but he continued as if they weren’t present. So, they decided then and there to elect a new chairman, picking state central committeeman Henry Herford Jr., a Paul supporter, to lead the party.

When Villere refused to acknowledge the vote, Paul’s delegates picked up their chairs and turned away from him, forming a new convention on the spot and passing a microphone to their new chairman.

Moments later, Herford, too, was seized by police. Camera-wielding Paul supporters surrounded the fracas as Herford pleaded with officers to be gentle due to his prosthetic hip. “I have a handicap! I’m handicapped!” he said as they pulled him to the ground.

Herford said later, after he was treated for dislocating his prosthetic hip, “It felt like somebody had kicked me, brought me down. They said I was resisting arrest, but they never said I was under arrest. I didn’t leave when they told me to leave, but I never was told to leave… I have a room here in this hotel and I’m on the state central committee. I don’t know how I could be in an improper place.”

John Tate, Ron Paul’s national campaign manager, said, “Mr. Herford has a prosthetic hip and according to a doctor at the scene it appears as though the prosthetic was dislocated and may require replacement. The injury occurred as he was beginning to call to order the newly re-formed convention.”

A Shreveport police spokesman later told Reuters that Herford resisted arrest and was ultimately cited for the misdemeanor offense of remaining on private property after being forbidden.

Tate characterized the incident as Herford being “attacked by some security officials who didn’t realize that the body had voted out the previous chairman.”

The re-formed convention, however, was not recognized by the LAGOP hierarchy, which went on to select its own delegates. Paul supporters also selected their own delegates, claiming they had a clearly established majority. There was no resolution between the two groups.

Tate called the outcome a “positive conclusion,” following a meeting between Paul delegates and Romney officials, who pledged to help ensure Paul’s supporters have a voice at the national convention. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were injured at the convention,” he said. “And, we thank all responsible convention participants for ending the day on a more unified note.”

With the LAGOP descending into chaos, the Republican National Committee of contests will be tasked with deciding, purely by fiat, which group of Louisiana delegates will be allowed to represent Louisiana at the party’s national convention in August.

Paul delegates are already on the outs with the RNC, which has threatened to block the Nevada delegation for allegedly seating too many Paul supporters. Romney supporters in that state have instead thrown their support to an outside group called Team Nevada, which The Las Vegas Sun‘s Jon Ralston called a “shadow state party” set up to conduct establishment Republicans’ political affairs in the swing state.

Other states have seen similar post-election surges for Paul, and he’s encouraged his supporters to continue using arcane party rules to essentially replace neoconservative Republicans with more libertarian-minded officials.

The LAGOP did not respond to a request for comment.

This video, showing the arrest of Ron Paul supporter Henry Herford during the 2012 LAGOP state convention, was published to YouTube on June 2, 2012.

Pacific Ocean Will Not Dilute Fukushima Dumped Radioactive Water

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The operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant has been dumping something like a thousand tons per day of radioactive water into the Pacific ocean.

Remember, the reactors are “riddled with meltdown holes”, building 4 – with more radiation than all nuclear bombs ever dropped or tested – is missing entire walls, and building 3 is a pile of rubble.

The whole complex is leaking like a sieve, and the rivers of water pumped into the reactors every day are just pouring into the ocean (with only a slight delay).

Most people assume that the ocean will dilute the radiation from Fukushima enough that any radiation reaching the West Coast of the U.S. will be low.

For example, the Congressional Research Service wrote in April:

Scientists have stated that radiation in the ocean very quickly becomes diluted and would not be a problem beyond the coast of Japan.

***

U.S. fisheries are unlikely to be affected because radioactive material that enters the marine environment would be greatly diluted before reaching U.S. fishing grounds.

And a Woods Hole oceanographer said:

“The Kuroshio current is considered like the Gulf Stream of the Pacific, a very large current that can rapidly carry the radioactivity into the interior” of the ocean, Buesseler said.

“But it also dilutes along the way, causing a lot of mixing and decreasing radioactivity as it moves offshore.”

But – just as we noted 2 days after the earthquake hit that the jet stream might carry radiation to the U.S. by wind – we are now warning that ocean currents might carry more radiation to the at least some portions of the West Coast of North America than is assumed.

Specifically, we noted more than a year ago:

The ocean currents head from Japan to the West Coast of the U.S.

As AP notes:

The floating debris will likely be carried by currents off of Japan toward Washington, Oregon and California before turning toward Hawaii and back again toward Asia, circulating in what is known as the North Pacific gyre, said Curt Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle oceanographer who has spent decades tracking flotsam.

***

“All this debris will find a way to reach the West coast or stop in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a swirling mass of concentrated marine litter in the Pacific Ocean, said Luca Centurioni, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

Here is what the North Pacific Gyre looks like:

North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone Previously Secret 1955 Government Report Concluded that Ocean May Not Adequately Dilute Radiation from Nuclear Accidents

NPR reports:

CNN said that “the Hawaiian islands may get a new and unwelcome addition in coming months — a giant new island of debris floating in from Japan.” It relied in part on work done by the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center, which predicts that:

“In three years, the [debris] plume will reach the U.S. West Coast, dumping debris on Californian beaches and the beaches of British Columbia, Alaska, and Baja California. The debris will then drift into the famous North Pacific Garbage Patch, where it will wander around and break into smaller and smaller pieces. In five years, Hawaii shores can expect to see another barrage of debris that is stronger and longer lastingthan the first one. Much of the debris leaving the North Pacific Garbage Patch ends up on Hawaii’s reefs and beaches.”

Indeed, CNN notes:

The debris mass, which appears as an island from the air, contains cars, trucks, tractors, boats and entire houses floating in the current heading toward the U.S. and Canada, according to ABC News.

The bulk of the debris will likely not be radioactive, as it was presumably washed out to sea during the initial tsunami – before much radioactivity had leaked. But this shows the power of the currents from Japan to the West Coast.

An animated graphic from the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center shows the projected dispersion of debris from Japan:

Simulation of Debris from March 11 2011 Japan tsunami Previously Secret 1955 Government Report Concluded that Ocean May Not Adequately Dilute Radiation from Nuclear Accidents

Indeed, an island of Japanese debris the size of California is hitting the West Coast of North America … and some of it is radioactive.

In addition to radioactive debris, MIT says that seawater which is itself radioactive may begin hitting the West Coast within 5 years. Given that the debris is hitting faster than predicted, it is possible that the radioactive seawater will as well.

And the Congressional Research Service admitted:

However, there remains the slight potential for a relatively narrow corridor of highly contaminated water leading away from Japan …

***

Transport by ocean currents is much slower, and additional radiation from this source might eventually also be detected in North Pacific waters under U.S. jurisdiction, even months after its release. Regardless of slow ocean transport, the long half-life of radioactive cesium isotopes means that radioactive contaminants could remain a valid concern for
ears.

Indeed, nuclear expert Robert Alvarez – senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary and deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment from 1993 to 1999 – wrote yesterday:

According to a previously secret 1955 memo from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission regarding concerns of the British government over contaminated tuna, “dissipation of radioactive fall-out in ocean waters is not a gradual spreading out of the activity from the region with the highest concentration to uncontaminated regions, but that in all probability the process results in scattered pockets and streams of higher radioactive materials in the Pacific. We can speculate that tuna which now show radioactivity from ingested materials [this is in 1955, not today] have been living, in or have passed through, such pockets; or have been feeding on plant and animal life which has been exposed in those areas.”

Because of the huge amounts of radioactive water Tepco is dumping into the Pacific Ocean, and the fact that the current pushes waters from Japan to the West Coast of North America, at least some of these radioactive “streams” or “hot spots” will likely end up impacting the West Coast.

Spanish Banking Crisis Threatens Euro Collapse

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European stock markets slumped last week, reflecting fears of an intensification of the euro crisis combined with growing evidence of an economic slowdown in the US and China. The euro has dropped 7.3 percent against the dollar in the past two months, nearing a two-year low.

Following weeks of speculation on the fate of the Greek economy, which is now in its fifth year of recession and has suffered a staggering decline, the European financial press has increasingly focused on the Spanish economy.

As a result of a series of austerity measures introduced by the Spanish government at the behest of the European Union, unemployment rose to the record level of 24.3 percent in April, and manufacturing activity fell to a three-year low. Both figures are even worse than those recorded by Greece. Alongside declining tax revenues and GDP, the government also faces a potential meltdown of the country’s banking system, resulting from Spain’s real estate bubble.

The Spanish government admitted last week that it needed to find an additional €19 billion (US$23.6 billion) to save Bankia from bankruptcy. It is also seeking money to finance the expenditures of bankrupt regional governments, a number of which were relegated to junk status by ratings agencies, depriving them of the ability to raise their own funds.

While Madrid requires €19 billion to keep Bankia afloat, leading financial institutions put the total sum needed to prevent a collapse of the Spanish banking system at €100 billion. Last month depositors withdrew over €60 billion from the country’s banks, transferring the money abroad. This took place even before the Spanish government’s panic nationalization of Bankia.

The markets’ lack of confidence in the government’s ability to repay its debts was reflected in the sale of Spanish 10-year sovereign debt Friday. The bonds traded at 6.5 percent interest—a rate which is considered to be unsustainable to allow Spain to repay its debts.

Commenting on the situation, Spanish Finance Minister Luis de Guindos warned: “I don’t know if we are on the edge of a cliff, but we are in a very, very difficult position. The future of the euro is going to play out in the next few weeks in Spain and Italy.” His assessment was confirmed by former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, who said: “We are in a situation of total emergency, the worst crisis we have ever lived through”.

Spain is the fourth biggest economy in the euro zone and has close trade and financial links with Italy, the euro zone’s third-largest economy. A run on Spanish banks risks spreading to Italy and threatening the very existence of the euro zone.

Addressing the dangers posed by a run on Spanish banks, Olli Rehn, Europe’s economics commissioner, warned last week that the euro zone was on the brink of “disintegration”.

On Thursday last week, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaría held emergency talks with US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and IMF head Christine Lagarde. The discussions centered primarily on how to put pressure on Europe’s biggest economy, Germany, to free up more money to bail out Spanish banks.

The bailout mechanism preferred by the US treasury and the IMF is to enlarge the existing European bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, and permit it to lend directly to banks. In line with existing policy, ESM loans are made to governments, in exchange for the implementation of drastic austerity measures largely laid down by Germany and rubber-stamped by Brussels. This gives the option of forcing private investors to take losses on part of their investments.

The reluctance of the German government to the proposal for new funding powers for the ESM is not due to any fundamental opposition to bailing out banks. The government led by Angela Merkel has already made huge sums available to bankrupt German financial institutions after the crash of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The chief fear in Berlin—as the chief contributor to both the ESM and the European Central Bank—is that it could be called upon to pay out hundreds of billions in the event of a crash of the banks in southern Europe.

This is why Merkel has always insisted that any increase in powers for the ESM must be accompanied by moves towards a full fiscal union, i.e. the establishment of a structure which allows Germany to dictate economic policy throughout the EU. The basic form of such a policy can already be seen in Greece and Spain: the imposition of austerity measures which have resulted in an unparalleled social and economic collapse.

The German government has also profited financially from the crisis. While the interest rates for Spanish and Italian sovereign bonds are going through the roof, investors were prepared to pay a small dividend last week to buy German bonds as a “safe haven” for their money.

As the chief financial sponsor, Germany also profits from the lucrative lending policy of the ECB. The incestuous manner in which the ECB and the IMF secure their own interests was revealed in an article in the New York Times last week entitled: “Most Aid to Athens Circles Back to Europe”.

The article describes how the “troika”—the ECB, European Commission and IMF—have acquired ownership of around three quarters of Greek debt. The article then describes how the billions of funds allocated by the troika to Greece this year have been deposited in a special account set up after Greece’s May 6 elections. These funds are parked in the special account for 2 or 3 days, then returned to the troika in the form of interest payments on the loans taken out.

This arrangement effectively denies the transitional Greek regime of any possibility of making expenditures until the next election later this month. At the same time, the ECB receives an interest rate of 10 percent on the Greek bonds it has purchased.

The article then quotes an analyst at Deutsche Bank, who comments: “Greece will not default on the troika because the troika is paying themselves”.

The ruthlessness of both the central and private banks has massively intensified the crisis. The growing antagonisms between individual states now threaten to blow apart the EU and the euro.

These developments are inevitably impacting on the consciousness of broad layers of of the European population and undermining confidence in the EU. A survey of eight leading European countries by the Pew Research Centre cited in the Spanish daily El País reveals that just one-third of Europeans believe that economic integration has been a positive process.

A New Stage In The Global Crisis

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Friday’s disastrous US jobs report, which showed the worst payrolls growth in a year, capped a week of dismal economic news from every part of the world.

These developments reveal that claims of an economic recovery are not only premature but utterly fictitious. Despite all claims to the contrary, the crisis again and again proves to be intractable.

No part of the world is immune from the downturn. Hopes that economic weakness in Europe and the US would be offset by growth in the developing world were dashed by the latest statistics. India’s first quarter growth rate hit 5.3 percent, the lowest level in 9 years, down from 9.2 percent a year ago. Brazil’s economy grew only .2 percent, and China’s purchasing managers’ index fell sharply.

Shortly before the US figures were released, Eurostat announced that unemployment in the euro zone hit its highest level on records going back 13 years. This followed announcements that the euro zone manufacturing purchasing managers’ index fell to its lowest level in three years, prompting the report’s issuer to predict that the euro zone economy will shrink this quarter.

These figures, mixed with concerns over Spain’s banking sector, spurred a flight to relatively safe government securities, driving US and German bond yields to record lows. Meanwhile, the borrowing costs of Spain and Italy approached those at which Greece and Portugal were forced to request bailouts.

This came as the Spanish central bank announced Thursday that €97 billion had been withdrawn from the country during the first quarter of the year. The week before, Bankia, the country’s fourth-largest bank, had requested a bailout of €19 billion from the Spanish government, in the largest bank bailout in the nation’s history.

In the US, the worst jobs report in a year showed that the average duration of unemployment lengthened, the number of long-term unemployed grew, while earnings were flat and hours worked fell.

The jobs report met a surreal response in the US political establishment. Obama and his Republican rivals denounced each other for not passing corporate handouts and deregulation fast enough. All the factions of the ruling class are agreed that the attack on jobs and social spending should continue.

Obama reiterated his demand for the passage of his jobs “to-do list”—a series of corporate handouts. In introducing the proposal last month, Obama went so far as to brag that the period of his administration was “the only time that government employment has gone down during a recession.”

This response is common to every country: no policy that in any way impinges on the most selfish financial interests of the ruling class can even be proposed. As millions face unemployment and poverty, discussions in both parties focus on how to cut taxes for business while slashing social services.

There is an aura of disorientation among the ruling class in the face of this new disaster, as reflected in press commentary on the jobs report. “I see no reason for confidence in the capacity for policymakers to grasp what is developing,” wrote commentator Doug Noland in his web-based Credit Bubble Bulletin. “I am confident that what is unfolding has the potential to be more problematic than 2008,” he added.

Noting that “the outlook is far darker than it seemed to be only a couple of months ago,” Floyd Norris of the New York Times bemoaned the inability of countries to work out a united response to the crisis.

“Less than four years ago, with the world’s financial system in danger of collapsing, major countries managed to come together on a coordinated course that averted a global depression,” he wrote. But now “there seems to be little willingness—or perhaps little ability—for the major countries to act together again.”

Yet Norris ends his article with an optimistic flight of fancy, noting that “Germany—the country that would have to pick up most of the bill to rescue its neighbors—could decide that not spending the money created greater dangers. The United States could find ways to help out despite fiscal pressures and Congressional hostility to foreign aid. A new consensus on common bank regulation could emerge.” But as the author himself suspects, the odds of any of these outcomes is diminishing by the day.

Among bourgeois commentators, all hopes rest on the willingness of Germany, the strongest economy in the euro zone, to lend funds to stabilize the banks and prop up struggling EU member nations. “We need to do whatever we can to convince Germany to show leadership and preserve the European Union,” billionaire investor George Soros said over the weekend.

But the inability of major powers to coordinate a common response gets to the heart of the crisis that is convulsing Europe.

The growing disorientation of the ruling class stems from their inability to reconcile the national interests of each bourgeoisie with the global economy. Under capitalism, nation-states all respond to a crisis in the same way: fighting to preserve their own self-interest, with military force if need be.

The present crisis is in every way as fundamental and profound as that of the 1930s. The Great Depression, like the present situation, was an economic crisis intensifying geopolitical antagonisms, for which the ruling class ultimately had no answer besides the horrific bloodshed of the Second World War.

The intensification of the economic collapse puts to shame all official commentary, which sought to present the 2008 crisis as an ephemeral downturn from which capitalism would recover. It points to the fact that the historic contradictions of capitalism analyzed by the great Marxists—including Marx himself, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky—maintain their validity.

These contradictions have not been resolved. Far from it, they are erupting with tremendous force, breaking down all the stabilizing mechanisms of the postwar period, and throwing millions of people into unemployment and destitution. These contradictions must likewise provoke mass social struggles and a new period of revolutionary upheaval.

The Legend of the Spat-Upon Veteran

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Out of all the status-quo-sustaining fables we create out of military history, none are as enduring as Vietnam War myths. Desperate to cobble a pro-war cautionary tale out of a blood-soaked tragedy, we keep reimagining the loss in Southeast Asia not as a policy failure but as the product of an America that dishonored returning troops.

Incessantly echoed by Hollywood and Washington since the concurrent successes of the Rambo and Reagan franchises, this legend was the central theme of President Obama’s Memorial Day speech kicking off the government’s commemoration of the Vietnam conflict.

“You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor,” he told veterans. “You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened.”

It’s undeniable that chronic underfunding of the Veterans Administration unduly harmed Vietnam-era soldiers. However, that lamentable failure was not what Obama was referring to. As the president who escalated the Vietnam-esque war in Afghanistan, he was making a larger argument. Deliberately parroting Rambo’s claim about “a quiet war against all the soldiers returning,” he was asserting that America as a whole spat on soldiers when they came home—even though there’s no proof that this happened on any mass scale.

In his exhaustive book entitled “The Spitting Image,” Vietnam vet and Holy Cross professor Jerry Lembcke documents veterans who claim they were spat on by antiwar protestors, but he found no physical evidence (photographs, news reports, etc.) that these transgressions actually occurred. His findings are supported by surveys of his fellow Vietnam veterans as they came home.

For instance, Lembcke notes that “a U.S. Senate study, based on data collected in August 1971 by Harris Associates, found that 75 percent of Vietnam-era veterans polled disagreed with the statement, ‘Those people at home who opposed the Vietnam war often blame veterans for our involvement there’ ” while “94 percent said their reception by people their own age who had not served in the armed forces was friendly.” Meanwhile, the Veterans’ World Project at Southern Illinois University found that many Vietnam vets supported the antiwar protest, with researchers finding almost no veterans “finish(ing) their service in Vietnam believing that what the United States has done there has served to forward our nation’s purposes.”

In the face of such data, why would the current president nonetheless repeat the apocryphal myth about spat-on Vietnam veterans? Because—facts be damned—it serves a purpose: to suppress protest and perpetuate the ideology of militarism.

This objective is achieved through the narrative’s preposterous assumptions. Metaphorically, if not explicitly, the mythology equates antiwar activism with dishonoring the troops; implies that such protest is kryptonite to the Pentagon’s Superman; and therefore insinuates that America loses wars not when policies are wrong, but when dissent is tolerated.

As political memes go, this 30-year Vietnam storyline has been wildly successful, helping presidents silence opposition to the Iraq War, the continued Afghanistan occupation, our expanding drone wars, and, of course, our ever-increasing defense budgets.

Yet, as much as the propaganda is cast as a genuflection to veterans, it’s anything but. For one thing, it ignores the fact that the many troops enlist specifically to defend our freedoms—among them the freedom to dissent. Additionally, in manufacturing falsehoods out of the painful Vietnam experience, it insults many Vietnam vets by writing their opposition to that war out of history. Unchecked, the mythology ultimately uses the revised history of yesteryear’s soldiers to vaporize the very dissent that might prevent tomorrow’s soldiers from facing another Vietnam-like quagmire.

That’s not respectful or supportive of veterans—it’s the opposite.

10 Things That We Can Learn About Shortages And Preparation From The Economic Collapse In Greece

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When the economy of a nation collapses, almost everything changes. Unfortunately, most people have never been through anything like that, so it can be difficult to know how to prepare. For those that are busy preparing for the coming global financial collapse, there is a lot to be learned from the economic depression that is happening right now in Greece. Essentially, what Greece is experiencing is a low level economic collapse. Unemployment is absolutely rampant and poverty is rapidly spreading, but the good news for Greece is that the global financial system is still operating somewhat normally and they are getting some financial assistance from the outside. Things in Greece could be a whole lot worse, and they will probably get a whole lot worse before it is all said and done. But already things have gotten bad enough in Greece that it gives us an idea of what a full-blown economic collapse in the 21st century may look like. There are reports of food and medicine shortages in Greece, crime and suicides are on the rise and people have been rapidly pulling their money out of the banks. Hopefully this article will give you some ideas that you can use as you prepare for the economic chaos that will soon be unfolding all over the globe.

The following are 10 things that we can learn about shortages and preparation from the economic collapse in Greece....

#1 Food Shortages Can Actually Happen

Most people assume that they will always be able to run out to their local supermarket or to Wal-Mart and get all of the supplies they need.

Unfortunately, that is a false assumption. The truth is that our food distribution system is extremely vulnerable.

In Greece, many people are starting to totally run out of food. Even some government institutions (such as prisons) are now reporting food shortages. The following was originally from a Greek news source....

The financing for many prisons has decreased to a minimum for some months now, resulting in hundreds of detainees being malnourished and surviving on the charity of local communities.

The latest example is the prison in Corinth where after the supply stoppage from the nearby military camp, the prisoners are at the mercy of God because, as reported by prison staff, not even one grain of rice has been left in their warehouses. When a few days earlier the commander of the camp announced to the prison management the transportation stoppage, citing lack of food supplies even for the soldiers, he shut down the last source of supply for 84 prisoners. The response of some Corinth citizens was immediate as they took it upon themselves to support the prisoners, since all protests to the Justice ministry were fruitless.

#2 Medicine Is One Of The First Things That Becomes Scarce During An Economic Collapse

If you are dependent on medicine in order to survive, you might want to figure out how you are going to get by if your supply of medicine is totally cut off someday.

In Greece, medicine shortages have become a massive problem. The following is from a recent Bloomberg article....

Mina Mavrou, who runs a pharmacy in a middle-class Athens suburb, spends hours each day pleading with drugmakers, wholesalers and colleagues to hunt down medicines for clients. Life-saving drugs such as Sanofi (SAN)’s blood-thinner Clexane and GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK)’s asthma inhaler Flixotide often appear as lines of crimson data on pharmacists’ computer screens, meaning the products aren’t in stock or that pharmacists can’t order as many units as they need.

“When we see red, we want to cry,” Mavrou said. “The situation is worsening day by day.”

The 12,000 pharmacies that dot almost every street corner in Greek cities are the damaged capillaries of a complex system for getting treatment to patients. The Panhellenic Association of Pharmacists reports shortages of almost half the country’s 500 most-used medicines. Even when drugs are available, pharmacists often must foot the bill up front, or patients simply do without.

#3 When An Economy Collapses, So Might The Power Grid

Try this some time - turn off all power to your home for 24 hours and try to live normally.

Sadly, most people simply do not understand just how dependent we are on the power grid. Without power, all of our lives would change dramatically.

In Greece, authorities are warning of an impending "collapse" of the power grid. If it goes down for an extended period of time in Greece, the consequences would be catastrophic....

Greece’s power regulator RAE told Reuters on Friday it was calling an emergency meeting next week to avert a collapse of the debt-stricken country’s electricity and natural gas system.

“RAE is taking crisis initiatives throughout next week to avert the collapse of the natural gas and electricity system,” the regulator’s chief Nikos Vasilakos told Reuters.

RAE took the decision after receiving a letter from Greece’s natural gas company DEPA, which threatened to cut supplies to electricity producers if they failed to settle their arrears with the company.

#4 During An Economic Collapse You Cannot Even Take Water For Granted

If the power grid goes down, you will soon no longer have clean water coming out of your faucets. That is one of the reasons why it is absolutely imperative that the power grid stay operable in Greece.

Sadly, most people don't understand just how vulnerable our water system is. In a previous article, I quoted from a report that discussed how rapidly our water supply would be in jeopardy in the event of a major transportation disruption....

According to the American Water Works Association, Americans drink more than one billion glasses of tap water per day. For safety and security reasons, most water supply plants maintain a larger inventory of supplies than the typical business. However, the amount of chemical storage varies significantly and is site specific. According to the Chlorine Institute, most water treatment facilities receive chlorine in cylinders (150 pounds and one ton cylinders) that are delivered by motor carriers. On average, trucks deliver purification chemicals to water supply plants every seven to 14 days. Without these chemicals, water cannot be purified and made safe for drinking. Without truck deliveries of purification chemicals, water supply plants will run out of drinkable water in 14 to 28 days. Once the water supply is drained, water will be deemed safe for drinking only when boiled. Lack of clean drinking water will lead to increased gastrointestinal and other illnesses, further taxing an already weakened healthcare system.

What will you do when clean water stops coming out of your faucets?

You might want to start thinking about that.

#5 During An Economic Crisis Your Credit Cards And Debit Cards May Stop Working

Most people have become very accustomed to using either debit cards or credit cards for almost everything.

But what would happen if the financial system locked up for a period of time and you were not able to use them?

This is something that the citizens of Greece are potentially facing in the coming months, and this is something that all of us need to start thinking about.

#6 Crime, Rioting And Looting Become Commonplace During An Economic Collapse

Big corporations are already making extensive plans for how to protect their stores in the event that Greece switches from the euro to the drachma.

The following is from a recent Reuters article....

British electrical retailer Dixons has spent the last few weeks stockpiling security shutters to protect its nearly 100 stores across Greece in case of riot.

The planning, says Dixons chief Sebastian James, may look alarmist but it's good to be prepared.

Company bosses around Europe agree. As the financial crisis in Greece worsens, companies are getting ready for everything from social unrest to a complete meltdown of the financial system.

#7 During A Financial Meltdown Many Average Citizens Will Start Bartering

During this economic depression, alternative currencies have already been popping up in Greece.

When things fall apart on a global scale, will you have things to barter for the things that you need?

#8 Suicides Spike During An Economic Collapse

When you think of the Great Depression of the 1930s, what do you think of?

Many people think of images of people jumping out of buildings.

Well, something similar has been happening in Greece. Suicide statistics in Greece have been absolutely soaring during the last couple of years.

Once prosperity disappears, many people feel as though life is not worth living anymore.

#9 Your Currency May Rapidly Lose Value During An Economic Crisis

Just remember what happened in Germany during the Weimar Republic and what has happened recently in places like Zimbabwe.

The truth is that it can happen anywhere.

Right now, Greeks are pulling their money out of the banks because they are worried that their euros will be turned into drachmas which would rapidly lose value.

If I was living in Greece I would definitely be concerned about that. The return of the drachma seems to get closer with each passing day. Just check out these screenshots.

#10 When Things Hit The Fan The Government Will Not Save You

Has the government of Greece come to the rescue of all of those that are deeply suffering right now?

Of course not. The truth is that the Greek government can barely take care of itself at the moment.

History has shown us that governments simply cannot be counted on when things hit the fan.

Just remember what happened during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In the end, the only one that can be counted on to take care of you and your family is you.

So you better start preparing.

Unfortunately, as I wrote about the other day, time is rapidly running out for the global financial system.

Even some of the top economic officials in the world are warning that another major crisis could be on the way.

Just check out what World Bank President Robert Zoellick said the other day....

"Events in Greece could trigger financial fright in Spain, Italy and across the eurozone. The summer of 2012 offers an eerie echo of 2008."

He also compared a potential exit of Greece from the eurozone to the collapse of Lehman Brothers back during the last financial crisis....

"If Greece leaves the eurozone, the contagion is impossible to predict, just as Lehman had unexpected consequences."

So what are some things that the average person can do to get prepared?

Well, a recent article on SHTFplan.com entitled "The List: A to Z Survival for the Abysmal Times Ahead" contains hundreds of ideas for preparing for the chaotic economic environment that we are heading into.

Preparation is going to look different for every family. No two situations are exactly the same.

But there are some practical steps that nearly all of us can take to better position ourselves for what is coming. Now is the time to get educated and now is the time to take action.

Or you could be like all of those that laughed at Noah while he was building that big boat.

In the end, things did not work out too well for those folks.

How Amazon.com Snuffed Out Competitors and Their Next Battle for Publishing

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From the start, Jeff Bezos wanted to “get big fast.” He was never a “small is beautiful” kind of guy. The Brobdingnagian numbers tell much of the story. In 1994, four years after the first Internet browser was created, Bezos stumbled upon a startling statistic: the Internet had been growing at the rate of 2,300 percent annually. In 1995, the year Bezos, then 31, started Amazon, just 16 million people used the Internet. A year later, the number was 36 million, a figure that would multiply at a furious rate. Today, more than 1.7 billion people, or almost one out of every four humans on the planet, are online. Bezos understood two things. One was the way the Internet made it possible to banish geography, enabling anyone with an Internet connection and a computer to browse a seemingly limitless universe of goods with a precision never previously known and then buy them directly from the comfort of their homes. The second was how the Internet allowed merchants to gather vast amounts of personal information on individual customers.

The Internet permitted a kind of bespoke selling. James Marcus, who was hired by Bezos in 1996 and would work at Amazon for five years, later published a revealing memoir of his time as Employee #55. He recalls Bezos insisting that the Internet, with “its bottomless capacity for data collection,” would “allow you to sort through entire populations with a fine-tooth comb. Affinity would call out to affinity: your likes and dislikes—from Beethoven to barbecue sauce, shampoo to shoe polish to Laverne & Shirley—were as distinctive as your DNA, and would make it a snap to match you up with your 9,999 cousins.” This prospect, Marcus felt, “was either a utopian daydream or a targeted-marketing nightmare.”

Whichever one it was, Bezos didn’t much care. “You know, things just don’t grow that fast,” he observed. “It’s highly unusual, and that started me thinking, ‘What kind of business plan might make sense in the context of that growth?’” Bezos decided selling books would be the best way to get big fast on the Internet. This was not immediately obvious: bookselling in the United States had always been less of a business than a calling. Profit margins were notoriously thin, and most independent stores depended on low rents. Walk-in traffic was often sporadic, the public’s taste fickle; reliance on a steady stream of bestsellers to keep the landlord at bay was not exactly a sure-fire strategy for remaining solvent.

Still, overall, selling books was a big business. In 1994 Americans bought $19 billion worth of books. Barnes & Noble and the Borders Group had by then captured a quarter of the market, with independent stores struggling to make up just over another fifth and a skein of book clubs, supermarkets and other outlets accounting for the rest. That same year, 513 million individual books were sold, and seventeen bestsellers each sold more than 1 million copies. Bezos knew that two national distributors, Ingram Book Group and Baker & Taylor, had warehouses holding about 400,000 titles and in the late 1980s had begun converting their inventory list from microfiche to a digital format accessible by computer. Bezos also knew that in 1992 the Supreme Court had ruled in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota that retailers were exempt from charging sales tax in states where they didn’t have a physical presence. (For years, he would use this advantage to avoid collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in state sales taxes, giving Amazon an enormous edge over retailers of every kind, from bookstores to Best Buy and Home Depot. In recent months, however, Amazon, under mounting pressure, has eased its opposition and reached agreements with twelve states, including California and Texas, to collect sales tax.) “Books are incredibly unusual in one respect,” Bezos said, “and that is that there are more items in the book category than there are items in any other category by far.” A devotee of the Culture of Metrics, Bezos was undaunted. He was sure that the algorithms of computerized search and access would provide the keys to a consumer kingdom whose riches were as yet undiscovered and barely dreamed of, and so he set out to construct a twenty-first-century ordering mechanism that, at least for the short term, would deliver goods the old-fashioned way: by hand, from warehouses via the Postal Service and commercial shippers.

* * *

One of Amazon’s consultants was publishing visionary Jason Epstein. In 1952 Epstein founded Anchor Books, the highbrow trade paperback publisher; eleven years later he was one of the founders of the New York Review of Books, and for many decades was an eminence at Random House. His admiration for Bezos was mixed with a certain bemusement; he knew that for Amazon to really revolutionize bookselling, physical books would have to be transformed into bits and bytes capable of being delivered seamlessly. Otherwise, Bezos would have built only a virtual contraption hostage to the Age of Gutenberg, with all its cumbersome inefficiencies. But Epstein could not fathom that the appeal of holding a physical book in one’s hand would ever diminish. Instead, he dreamed of machines that would print on demand, drawing upon a virtual library of digitized books and delivering physical copies in, say, Kinkos all across the country. The bookstores that might survive in this scenario would be essentially stocking examination copies of a representative selection of titles, which could be individually printed while customers lingered at coffee bars awaiting the arrival of their order. Ultimately, Epstein would devote himself to this vision.

Bezos looked elsewhere, convinced that one day he could fashion an unbroken chain of ordering and delivering books, despite the deep losses Epstein warned he’d have to sustain to do so. But first he had to insert the name of his new company into the frontal lobe of America’s (and not only America’s) consumers. Like all great and obsessed entrepreneurs, his ambitions were imperial, his optimism rooted in an overweening confidence in his own rectitude. He aimed to build a brand that was, in Marcus’s phrase, “both ubiquitous and irresistible.” A decade before, while a student at Princeton in the mid-1980s, he had adopted as his credo a line from Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451: “The Universe says No to us. We in answer fire a broadside of flesh at it and cry Yes!” (Many years later, the octogenarian Bradbury would decry the closing of his beloved Acres of Books in Long Beach, California, which had been unable to compete with the ever-expanding empire of online bookselling.) A slightly built, balding gnome of a man, Bezos often struck others as enigmatic, remote and odd. If not exactly cuddly, he was charismatic in an otherworldly sort of way. A Columbia University economics professor who was an early boss of Bezos’ said of him: “He was not warm…. It was like he could be a Martian for all I knew. A well-meaning, nice Martian.” Bill Gates, another Martian, would welcome Bezos’ arrival to Seattle, saying, “I buy books from Amazon.com because time is short and they have a big inventory and they’re very reliable.” Millions of book-buyers would soon agree.

As the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, I had watched Bezos’ early rise with admiration, believing that whatever complications he was bringing to the world of bookselling were more than compensated for by the many ways he was extending reader access to a greater diversity of books. After all, even the larger 60,000-square-foot emporiums of Barnes & Noble and Borders could carry no more than 175,000 titles. Amazon, by contrast, was virtually limitless in its offerings. Bezos was then, as he has been ever since, at pains to assure independent bookstores that his new business was no threat to them. He claimed that Amazon simply provided a different service and wasn’t trying to snuff bricks-and-mortar stores. Independent booksellers weren’t so sure.

* * *

In the mid- to late 1990s, when online bookselling was in its infancy, Barnes & Noble and Borders were busy expanding their empires, often opening stores adjacent to long-established community bookstores. The independents were alarmed by these and other aggressive strategies. The chain stores could give customers deeply discounted offerings on a depth of stock made possible by favorable publishers’ terms not extended to independents. Clerks at the chains might not intimately know the tastes and predilections of the surrounding neighborhood, but the price was right: lower was better, lowest was best.

The death toll tells the tale. Two decades ago, there were about 4,000 independent bookstores in the United States; only about 1,900 remain. And now, even the victors are imperiled. The fate of the two largest US chain bookstores—themselves partly responsible for putting smaller stores to the sword—is instructive: Borders declared bankruptcy in 2011 and closed its several hundred stores across the country, its demise benefiting over the short term its rival Barnes & Noble, which is nonetheless desperately trying to figure out ways to pay the mortgage on the considerable real estate occupied by its 1,332 stores across the nation. It is removing thousands of physical books from stores in order to create nifty digital zones to persuade customers to embrace the Nook e-book readers, the company’s alternative to Amazon’s Kindle. Persistent rumors that B&N’s owners wish to sell regularly sweep the corridors of publishing. But the very idea of owning a bookstore strikes most savvy investors as forlorn. In recent weeks, Microsoft Corp. decided to challenge Amazon by investing $605 million in B&N’s digital-book business, an arrangement that calls for sharing revenue from e-book sales and other content.

For many of us, the notion that bricks-and-mortar bookstores might one day disappear was unthinkable. Jason Epstein put it best in Book Business, his incisive 2001 book on publishing’s past, present and future, when he offered what now looks to be, given his characteristic unsentimental sobriety, an atypical dollop of unwarranted optimism: “A civilization without retail bookstores is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature. The feel of a book taken from the shelf and held in the hand is a magical experience, linking writer to reader.”

That sentiment is likely to strike today’s younger readers as nostalgia bordering on fetish. Reality is elsewhere. Consider the millions who are buying those modern Aladdin’s lamps called e-readers. These magical devices, ever more beautiful and nimble in design, have only to be lightly rubbed for the genie of literature to be summoned. Appetite for these idols, especially among the young, is insatiable. For these readers, what counts is whether and how books will be made available to the greatest number of people at the cheapest possible price. Whether readers find books in bookstores or a digital device matters not at all; what matters is cost and ease of access. Walk into any Apple store (temples of the latest fad) and you’ll be engulfed by the near frenzy of folks from all walks of life who seemingly can’t wait to surrender their hard-earned dollars for the latest iPad, Apple’s tablet reader, no matter the constraints of a faltering economy. Then try to find a bookstore. Good luck. If you do, you’ll notice that fewer books are on offer, the aisles wider, customers scarce. Bookstores have lost their mojo.

* * *

The bookstore wars are over. Independents are battered, Borders is dead, Barnes & Noble weakened but still standing and Amazon triumphant. Yet still there is no peace; a new war rages for the future of publishing. The recent Justice Department lawsuit accusing five of the country’s biggest publishers of illegally colluding with Apple to fix the price of e-books is, arguably, publishing’s Alamo. What angered the government wasn’t the price, but the way the publishers seemed to have secretly arranged to raise it. Many publishers and authors were flabbergasted, accusing the Obama administration of having gone after the wrong culprit. Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild, denounced the suit, as did David Carr, the media critic of the New York Times, who said it was “the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil but breaking up Ed’s Gas ‘N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead.” On its face, the suit seemed an antitrust travesty, a failure to go after the “monopolistic monolith” that is, as the Times put it, “publishing’s real nemesis.” In this view, the biggest threat is Amazon’s willingness to sell e-books at a loss in order to seduce millions of unwitting consumers into the leviathan’s cornucopia of online goods and services. What is clear is that “legacy publishing,” like old-fashioned bookselling, is gone. Just as bookselling is increasingly virtual, so is publishing. Technology democratizes both the means of production and distribution. The implications for traditional publishers are acute.

Amazon, not surprisingly, is keen to sharpen its competitive edge, to use every means at its disposal to confound, stymie and overpower its rivals. It is well positioned to do so: the introduction of the Amazon Kindle in 2007 led to a startling surge in e-book sales, which until then had been insignificant. Soon it was not unusual to see e-book sales jump by 400 percent over the previous year. An estimated 3 million e-readers were sold in 2009, the year Amazon began to sell its Kindle 2, the first e-reader available globally. Bezos called the Kindle a response to “the failings of a physical book…. I’m grumpy when I’m forced to read a physical book because it’s not as convenient. Turning the pages…the book is always flopping itself shut at the wrong moment.” Millions of people agreed and millions of Kindles were bought (though Amazon refuses to reveal exact numbers). Competing devices—including the Nook and the iPad, to name but two of the most prominent—began to proliferate and to give Amazon’s Kindle a run for its money, thanks to the e-book pricing arrangement between some publishers and Apple that attracted the ire of the Justice Department. Barely a year after Apple launched the iPad, it had sold more than 15 million worldwide. Just three years ago, only 2 percent of Americans had an e-reader or a tablet; by January of this year, the figure was 28 percent. And Amazon, despite watching its market share drop from 90 percent of the American e-book market in 2010 to about 55–60 percent today, reached a milestone just under three years after the Kindle was introduced. “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books,” Bezos crowed, “astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

How the Digital Age might alter attention spans and perhaps even how we tell one another stories is a subject of considerable angst. The history of writing, however, gives us every reason to be confident that new forms of literary excellence will emerge, every bit as rigorous, pleasurable and enduring as the vaunted forms of yesteryear. Perhaps the discipline of tapping 140 characters on Twitter will one day give rise to a form as admirable and elegant as haiku was in its day. Perhaps the interactive features of graphic display and video interpolation, hyperlinks and the simultaneous display of multiple panels made possible by the World Wide Web will prompt new and compelling ways of telling one another the stories our species seems biologically programmed to tell. Perhaps all this will add to the rich storehouse of an evolving literature whose contours we have only begun to glimpse, much less to imagine.

* * *

One thing, however, is certain, and about it publishers agree: e-book sales as a percentage of overall revenue are skyrocketing. Initially such sales were a tiny proportion of overall revenue; in 2008, for instance, they were under 1 percent. No more. The head of one major publisher told me that in 2010 e-book sales accounted for 11 percent of his house’s revenue. By the end of 2011 it had more than tripled to 36 percent for the year. As John Thompson reports in the revised 2012 edition of his authoritative Merchants of Culture, in 2011 e-book sales for most publishers were “between 18 and 22 percent (possibly even higher for some houses).” Hardcover sales, the foundation of the business, continue to decline, plunging 13 percent in 2008 and suffering similar declines in the years since. According to the Pew Research Center’s most recent e-reading survey, 21 percent of American adults report reading an e-book in the past year. Soon one out of every three sales of adult trade titles will be in the form of an e-book. Readers of e-books are especially drawn to escapist and overtly commercial genres (romance, mysteries and thrillers, science fiction), and in these categories e-book sales have bulked up to as large as 60 percent. E-book sales are making inroads even with so-called literary fiction. Thompson cites Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, one of America’s most distinguished houses and one of several American imprints now owned by the German conglomerate Holtzbrinck. Franzen’s novel sold three-quarters of a million hardcover copies and a quarter-million e-books in the first twelve months of publication. (Franzen, by the way, detests electronic books, and is also the guy who dissed Oprah when she had the gumption to pick his earlier novel, The Corrections, for her popular book club.) Did Franzen’s e-book sales depress his hardcover sales, or did the e-book iteration introduce new readers to his work? It’s hard to know, but it’s likely a bit of both.

The inexorable shift in the United States from physical to digital books poses a palpable threat to the ways publishers have gone about their business. Jason Epstein got it right two years ago when he wrote, “The resistance today by publishers to the onrushing digital future does not arise from fear of disruptive literacy, but from the understandable fear of their own obsolescence and the complexity of the digital transformation that awaits them, one in which much of their traditional infrastructure and perhaps they too will be redundant.” Traditional publishers, he argued, have only themselves to blame, many (perhaps even most) of their wounds having been self-inflicted. They have been too often complacent, allergic to new ideas, even incompetent. Their dogged and likely doomed defense of traditional pricing strategies has left them vulnerable to Amazon’s predatory pricing practices. Peter Mayer, former CEO of Viking/Penguin and now owner and publisher of the independent Overlook Press, agrees: “Publishers clearly need to newly prove to readers and authors the value that publishers add.” That value, he concedes, is no longer a given.

The inability of most traditional publishers to successfully adapt to technological change may be rooted in the retrograde editorial and marketing culture that has long characterized the publishing industry. As one prominent literary agent told me, “This is a business run by English majors, not business majors.” A surpassing irony: for years many of us worried that the increasing conglomeration of publishers would reduce diversity. (We were wrong.) We also feared bloated overheads would hold editors hostage to an unsustainable commercial imperative. (We were right.) But little did we imagine that the blunderbuss for change would arrive in the form of an avaricious imperium called Amazon. It is something of a surprise to see so many now defending the practices of corporate publishers who, just yesterday, were excoriated as philistines out to coarsen the general culture.

Epstein, for one, doesn’t fear Amazon, writing recently that the company’s “strategy, if successful, might force publishers to shrink or even abandon their old infrastructure.” Thus will publishing collapse into the cottage industry it was “in the glory days before conglomeration.” Epstein insists that the dialectic Amazon exemplifies is irreversible, “a vivid expression of how the logic of a radical new and more efficient technology impels institutional change.”

Not very long ago it was thought no one would read a book on a computer screen. That assumption is now demonstrably wrong. Today, whether writers will continue to publish the old-fashioned way or go over to direct online publishing is an open question. How it will be answered is at the heart of the struggle taking place between Amazon and traditional publishers.

* * *

Jeff Bezos got what he wanted: Amazon got big fast and is getting bigger, dwarfing all rivals. To fully appreciate the fear that is sucking the oxygen out of publishers’ suites, it is important to understand what a steamroller Amazon has become. Last year it had $48 billion in revenue, more than all six of the major American publishing conglomerates combined, with a cash reserve of $5 billion. The company is valued at nearly $100 billion and employs more than 65,000 workers (all nonunion); Bezos, according to Forbes, is the thirtieth wealthiest man in America. Amazon may be identified in the public mind with books, but the reality is that book sales account for a diminishing share of its overall business; the company is no longer principally a bookseller. Amazon is now an online Walmart, and while 50 percent of its revenues are derived from music, TV shows, movies and, yes, books, another 50 percent comes from a diverse array of products and services. In the late 1990s Bezos bought IMDb.com, the authoritative movie website. In 2009 he went gunning for bigger game, spending nearly $900 million to acquire Zappos.com, a shoe retailer. He also owns Diapers.com, a baby products website. Now he seeks to colonize high-end fashion as well. “Bezos may well be the premier technologist in America,” said Wired, “a figure who casts as big a shadow as legends like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.”

With the introduction last fall of the Kindle Fire, Bezos is pushing an advanced mobile portal to Amazon’s cloud universe, which hosts Web operations for a wide variety of companies and institutions, including Netflix, the New York Times, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Tina Brown’s Newsweek/Daily Beast, PBS, Virgin Atlantic and the Harvard Medical School, among others. As Wired put it, when you buy the Kindle Fire, “you’re not buying a gadget—you’re filing citizen papers for the digital duchy of Amazonia.” For his part, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame recently renounced his “citizenship,” pulling the plug on his Amazon Prime membership and calling for a boycott of Amazon after he discovered that the company had buckled under pressure from Washington and scrubbed WikiLeaks from its Web servers. Not unlike small independent bookstores, bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Walmart, Home Depot and Best Buy are feeling the ground give way beneath them. Target is fighting back, declaring that it will no longer sell Kindles, clearly dismayed by Amazon’s brazen promotion of a price-checking app as a means of competing with many of the goods that Target sells.

Amazon has sixty-nine data and fulfillment centers, seventeen of which were built in the past year alone, with more to come. For the thousands of often older migratory baby boomers living out of RVs, who work furiously at the centers filling customer orders at almost literally a breakneck pace, it is, by all accounts, a high-stress job. These workers are the Morlocks who make possible Amazon’s vaunted customer service. Last fall, the Morning Call investigated their plight in one of Amazon’s main fulfillment warehouses in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It found that some employees risked stroke and heat exhaustion while running themselves ragged trying to fulfill quotas that resemble the onerous conditions so indelibly satirized by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Ambulances were routinely stationed in the facility’s giant parking lot to rush stricken workers to nearby hospitals. Amazon, for its part, says such problems are exceptional, and indeed by OSHA’s standards incidents of this kind are not the norm. Pursuing greater efficiencies, Amazon in March bought Kiva Systems Inc., a robot manufacturer, for $775 million. Kiva, founded in 2003 and backed by, among others, Bain Capital Ventures, claims that three to four times as many orders per hour can be packed up by a worker using its robots. For Bezos the Martian, the human factor is pesky. Now a more automated solution looms.

* * *

In spring 2011 Amazon announced that it was hiring publishing veteran Larry Kirshbaum, former CEO of the Time-Warner Book Group, to head Amazon Publishing in New York. Kirshbaum was all but condemned by many of his publishing comrades as an apostate. Others were puzzled: Why, they wondered, would Amazon, having so spectacularly led the e-book revolution and done so much, in the words of one of its spokesmen, to “re-invent reading,” seek to become a player in the rearview world of publishing books on paper? Doing so would require building an entire infrastructure of editors, publicists and even sales representatives who would be charged with convincing America’s booksellers—by now allergic to the very idea of aiding their most agile adversary—to carry its books. Indeed, Barnes & Noble, among other booksellers, promptly said it would not sell any book published by Amazon. (It should be remembered that B&N had once tried to become a publisher itself through its purchase of Sterling Publishing, raising howls of “conflict of interest” from publishers. The perennial question of whose ox is being gored fairly begs to be asked here.) For its part, Amazon swiftly struck an alliance with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to handle placing its books in physical stores. In a transparent subterfuge aimed at protecting its tax-avoidance strategies, Amazon intends to publish many of its books under a subsidiary imprint of Houghton’s called New Harvest, thus keeping alive the increasingly threadbare fiction that it has no physical presence in states where it does business online.

Nine months after Kirshbaum’s hire, judging by the number of deals concluded, his nascent operation rivals two of publishing’s largest companies, the French-owned Hachette and the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins. Like his boss, Kirshbaum wants to get big fast. It remains to be seen, however, whether spending a reported $800,000 to acquire Penny Marshall’s Hollywood memoirs is ultimately profitable; a number of the publishers I spoke with thought not and professed little anxiety at Amazon’s big-foot approach. They are not inclined to join the hysteria that largely greeted Kirshbaum’s defection, feeling that a recent Bloomberg Businessweek cover story depicting a book enveloped by flames had exaggerated by several orders of magnitude the actual threat posed by Amazon’s new venture. If Amazon wants to burn the book business, as the magazine’s headline blared, publishing books the old-fashioned way struck them as a peculiar way of going about it. Was there really a “secret plot to destroy literature,” as the magazine alleged? It seemed far-fetched, to say the least.

At the same time, Amazon’s New York foray might be seen as an effort to lure “legacy writers,” assuring them of a hardcover trophy and a state-of-the-art digital edition, and as such part of an overall strategy to overcome resistance among established bestselling authors to publish with the online retail giant. As one senior publishing executive said, 40 to 60 percent of the sales for the Stephen Kings, Lee Childs and John Grishams are still derived from Barnes & Noble, Walmart and Costco. Such authors, he said, “were they to walk away from their traditional publishers, would be leaving a considerable fortune on the table.” But as Amazon’s six other publishing imprints (Montlake Romance, AmazonCrossing, Thomas & Mercer, 47North, Amazon Encore, The Domino Project) have discovered, in certain genres (romance, science fiction and fantasy) formerly relegated to the moribund mass-market paperback, readers care not a whit about cover design or even good writing, and have no attachment at all to the book as object. Like addicts, they just want their fix at the lowest possible price, and Amazon is happy to be their online dealer.

James Marcus, now an editor at Harper’s Magazine, sees a particular irony in Amazon’s entry into book publishing. “When I first worked at Amazon in the mid 1990s,” he recalls, “we were advised to think of publishers as our partners. I believe this directive was in earnest. But even then, a creeping contempt for the publishing industry was sometimes discernible. Weren’t they stodgy traditionalists, who relied on rotary phones and a Depression-era business model? Well, the company is now a bona-fide trade publisher. There’s no predicting how these books will fare, especially with many retailers refusing to sell them (an embargo that won’t, of course, affect e-book sales, where Amazon still rules the roost). But Bezos may now discover that cutting out the middleman isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—that it’s surprisingly easy to fail in the neo-Victorian enterprise of publishing, especially when it comes to finding readers for worthy books. Perhaps it’s time for him to acquire a rotary phone, available in five retro colors and eligible for two-day Prime shipping on his very own site.”

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Amazon’s entry into publishing’s traditional casino is a sideshow. More worrisome, at least over the long term, is the success of Amazon’s Kindle Single program, an effort to encourage writers to make an end run around publishers, not only of books but of magazines as well. That program offers writers a chance to publish original e-book essays of no more than 30,000 words (authors agree to a bargain-basement price of no more than $2.99 in exchange for a 70 percent royalty and no advance). It has attracted Nelson DeMille, Jon Krakauer, William Vollmann, Walter Mosley, Ann Patchett, Amy Tan and the late Christopher Hitchens as well as a slew of lesser-known scribblers, some of whom have enjoyed paydays rivaling or exceeding what they might have gotten were magazines like Vanity Fair or The New Yorker to have commissioned their work. Royalties are direct-deposited monthly, and authors can check their sales anytime—a level of efficiency and transparency almost unknown at traditional publishers and magazines.

The boundaries are blurring all over publishing, as various actors have belatedly roused themselves to the necessities and blandishments of the online world. The literary agency William Morris Endeavor, for example, has launched 212 Books, an e-publishing program designed to showcase its clients, such as the estimable David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, whose first novel is wittingly called Patriots (first-serial rights have been placed with the Huffington Post). Endeavor is also bringing out as a direct e-book the hapless James Frey’s The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. J.K. Rowling, an empire unto herself, is releasing the Harry Potter series on her own terms and making it available through her own website, Amazon, Apple and every other conceivable digital “platform” in the known universe. Sourcebooks Inc., a medium-sized independent publisher based in Naperville, Illinois, is starting an online bookstore to sell its romance novels directly to readers for a monthly fee. Other creative online inducements for writers are being hatched at a number of publishers, including Little, Brown.

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Such efforts have scant chance of preventing Amazon from bulldozing any real or perceived obstacles to its single-minded pursuit of maximum clout. It is big enough to impose increasingly harsh terms on both its competitors and its clients. As reported by the Seattle Times, it has even begun to compel tiny indie publishers to abandon their traditional short discounts and embrace punitive larger trade discounts. When Karen Christensen of Berkshire Publishing Group refused, Amazon “stopped placing orders, affecting 10 percent of her business.”

The Independent Publishers Group, a principal distributor of about 500 small publishers, recently angered Amazon by refusing to accept the company’s peremptory demand for deeper discounts. Amazon promptly yanked nearly 5,000 digital titles. Small-press publishers were beside themselves. Bryce Milligan of Wings Press, based in Texas, spoke for most when, in a blistering broadside, he lambasted Amazon, complaining that its actions caused his sales to drop by 40 percent. “Amazon,” he wrote, “seemingly wants to kill off the distributors, then kill off the independent publishers and bookstores, and become the only link between the reader and the author…. E-book sales have been a highly addictive drug to many smaller publishers. For one thing, there are no ‘returns.’… E-book sales allowed smaller presses to get a taste of the kind of money that online impulse buying can produce. Already e-book sales were underwriting the publication of paper books-and-ink at Wings Press…. For Amazon to rip e-book sales away is a classic bait-and-switch tactic guaranteed to kill small presses by the hundreds…. There was a time not so long ago when ‘competition’ was a healthy thing, not a synonym for corporate ‘murder.’ Amazon could have been a bright and shining star, lighting the way to increased literacy and improved access to alternative literatures. Alas, it looks more likely to be a large and deadly asteroid. We, the literary dinosaurs, are watching to see if this is a near miss or the beginning of extinction.”

But Amazon isn’t the only player willing to play hardball. Random House, for example, quietly began in March to charge public libraries three times the retail price for e-books, causing Nova Scotia’s South Shore Public Libraries to call for a boycott and accuse the German-owned conglomerate of unfair e-book pricing. It gets worse: according to the New York Times, “five of the six major publishers either refuse to make new e-books available to libraries or have pulled back significantly over the last year on how easily or how often those books can be circulated.”

Jacob Stevens, the managing director of Verso, the distinguished independent press spawned by the London-based New Left Review, says of Amazon: “Having our backlist instantly and immediately available has so far outweighed the problems. For me, the problems become worse as Amazon moves from ‘just’ being a big player in selling books to vertical control of entire sections of the industry. It all gets a bit Big Brother. It’s easy to imagine Amazon muscling existing publishers out of the picture altogether and inviting authors and agents to deal directly with them. What would that do for the richness and diversity of our culture?”

And yet Amazon gives $1 million a year, in grants of about $25,000 apiece, to a wide range of independent literary journals and nonprofit organizations, including the Kenyon Review, the newly launched online Los Angeles Review of Books and even One Story, the nonprofit literary magazine devoted to the short story, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary by honoring Ann Patchett, an outspoken critic of Bezos’ business practices and a co-owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville. Amazon’s contributions outstrip by a large factor any advertising dollars sent my way by traditional publishers during the nearly nine years I ran the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Of course, such largesse—less than a pittance of its $5 billion cash reserve—may be meant to ensnare its most articulate critics in a web of dependency. If so, Amazon will likely be surprised, as the editors of such journals have well-deserved reputations for biting the hand that feeds, and they prize their contrarian sensibilities.

Another bookselling veteran made uneasy by Amazon’s colossal success is Andy Ross, who—having succeeded the venerable Fred Cody as the owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley until online competition forced its flagship location to close in 2006, after fifty years in business—now works in Oakland as a literary agent. “Monopolies are always problematic in a free society, and they are more so when we are dealing with the dissemination of ideas, which is what book publishing is about,” he told me. “In the realm of electronic publishing, Amazon until recently controlled about 90 percent of the market, a monopoly by almost anyone’s definition. Most people bought their e-books in the proprietary Kindle file format that could only be purchased from Amazon and only read on the Kindle reader that was manufactured by Amazon. Other makers of e-book readers designed them to accept the open-source e-pub format that allowed customers to have a wider choice of retailers to supply them with e-books. Since then, Amazon’s market share has been declining, but 60 percent of all e-books in America continue to be sold by Amazon in the Kindle file format. Amazon simply has too much power in the marketplace. And when their business interest conflicts with the public interest, the public interest suffers.”

It’s a fair point—one that also plagues Peter Mayer of Overlook Press: “All sides of this argument need to think deeply—not just about their businesses, but also about their world. I grew up in a world in which many parts together formed a community adversarial in a microcosmic way but communal in a larger sense: authors, editors, agents, publishers, wholesalers, retailers and readers. I hope, worried as I am about the current trajectory [of publishing], that we do not look back one day, sitting on a stump as the boy does in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, and only see what has become a largely denuded wasteland.”