Saturday, February 28, 2015

US economy in deflation and slump

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The US Commerce Department said Friday that Gross Domestic Product, the broadest measure of economic output, grew by only 2.2 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, down from an earlier estimate of 2.6 percent and a sharp fall from earlier quarters.
This followed the announcement by the Labor Department on Thursday that consumer prices fell by 0.7 percent, the largest fall since December 2008. Over the past 12 months, prices have fallen by 0.1 percent, the first annual deflation figure posted since October 2009.
These figures belie official claims that the US is an economically healthy counterbalance to the overall slump and deflation that now encompasses most of the world. In fact, US economic growth, hampered by an enormous impoverishment of the working class in the years following the financial crisis, remains far below previous historical averages.
On Tuesday, Standard and Poor’s said that its Case-Shiller Index showed that home prices grew by 4.6 percent over the past year, the slowest housing price increase since 2011. “The housing recovery is faltering,” David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones, told the Los Angeles Times. “Before the recession, anytime housing starts were at their current level… the economy was in a recession.”
Meanwhile the number of people in the US newly filing for jobless benefits jumped by 31,000 to 313,000 last week, in the largest increase since December 2013, reflecting a series of mass layoffs and business closures announced this month.
On February 4, office supply retailer Staples announced plans to buy its rival Office Depot, which would result in the closure of up to a thousand stores and tens of thousands of layoffs. The next day, electronics retailer RadioShack filed for bankruptcy, saying it plans to close up to 3,500 stores.
Mass layoffs have also been announced at online marketplace eBay, credit card company American Express, the oilfield services companies Schlumberger and Baker Hughes, as well as the retailers J.C. Penney and Macy’s.
These disastrous economic developments come even as the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all-time record of 18,140 on Wednesday, though it retreated slightly later in the week. Worldwide, the FTSE All-World Index is near its highest level in history.
The rise in global stock indices reflects the satisfaction of global financial markets with the pledge by the Syriza-led Greek government to impose austerity measures dictated by the EU, as well as indications by Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen in congressional testimony this week that the US central bank is likely to delay raising the federal funds rate in response to recent negative economic figures.
The US federal funds rate has been at essentially zero since the beginning of 2009. Together with the central bank’s multi-trillion-dollar “quantitative easing” program, this has helped to inflate a massive stock market bubble that has seen the NASDAQ triple in value since 2009.
This enormous growth in asset values has taken place despite the relatively depressed state of the US economy, which grew at an annual rate of 2.4 percent in 2014. During the entire economic “recovery” since 2010, the US economy has grown at an average rate of 2.2 percent. By comparison, the US economy grew at an average rate of 3.2 percent in the 1990s and 4.2 percent in the 1950s.
The ongoing stock market bubble has led to a vast enrichment of the financial elite: the number of billionaires in the US has nearly doubled since 2009. The financial oligarchy, however, has not used its ever-growing wealth for productive investment, as shown by the decline in business spending in the fourth quarter of last year. Instead, it has either hoarded it or used it to buy real estate, art and luxury goods.
On Thursday, Bloomberg reported that global sales of “ultra-premium” vehicles, costing $100,000 or more, surged by 154 percent, compared with a 36 percent increase in global vehicle sales overall. The report noted, “Rolls-Royce registrations have risen almost five-fold. Almost 10,000 new Bentleys cruised onto the streets last year, a 122 percent increase over 2009, while Lamborghini rode a 50 percent increase to pass the 2,000 vehicle mark.”
Meanwhile, the number of people in poverty in the US remains at record levels. In January, the Southern Education Foundation reported that, for the first time in at least half a century, low-income children make up the majority of students enrolled in American public schools.
To the extent that jobs are being created in the US, they are largely part-time, contingent and low-wage, replacing higher-wage jobs eliminated during the 2008 crash. A report published last year by the National Employment Law Project found that while American companies have added 1.85 million low-wage jobs since 2009, they have eliminated 1.83 million medium-wage and high-wage jobs.
Earlier this month, Jim Clifton, head of the Gallup polling agency, denounced claims that the US unemployment rate has returned to “normal” levels. “There’s no other way to say this,” he wrote. “The official unemployment rate, which cruelly overlooks the suffering of the long-term and often permanently unemployed as well as the depressingly underemployed, amounts to a Big Lie.”
“Gallup defines a good job as 30+ hours per week for an organization that provides a regular paycheck. Right now, the US is delivering at a staggeringly low rate of 44%, which is the number of full-time jobs as a percent of the adult population, 18 years and older.”
Clifton added, “I hear all the time that ‘unemployment is greatly reduced, but the people aren’t feeling it.’ When the media, talking heads, the White House and Wall Street start reporting the truth—the percent of Americans in good jobs; jobs that are full time and real—then we will quit wondering why Americans aren’t ‘feeling’ something that doesn’t remotely reflect the reality in their lives.”

“Jihadi John,” imperialism and ISIS

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On Thursday, the Washington Post revealed the identity of “Jihadi John,” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operative featured in grisly videos depicting the beheading of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as two British aid workers, David Haines and Alan Henning.
The Post named the ISIS member as Mohammed Emwazi, a 26-year-old who was born in Kuwait and raised in London. He is described in a CNN report as “a Briton from a well-to-do family who grew up in West London and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming.”
The media reporting on this identification has been dominated by discussions of the psychology of terrorism and the role of Islamist ideology, along with speculation as to why someone from such a background would choose to engage in such barbaric acts.
All of these banalities are part of a campaign of deliberate obfuscation. Purposefully left in the shadows is the central revelation to accompany the identification of “Jihad John”—the fact that he was well known to British intelligence, which undoubtedly identified him as soon as his image and voice were first broadcast in ISIS videos.
Not only did Britain’s security service MI5 carefully track his movements, it carried out an active campaign to recruit him as an informant and covert agent. As the British daily Guardian put it Thursday, MI5 has “serious questions” to answer about its relations with Emwazi.
Chief among these questions is whether the intelligence agency was successful in its recruitment efforts. In other words, did Emwazi go to Syria with MI5’s foreknowledge and blessings?
If there is doubt as to whether Emwazi was recruited, it is clear that other ISIS jihadists have been. The BBC reported that British intelligence has refused to name Emwazi for “operational reasons.” It adds: “The practice by intelligence agencies of approaching jihadist sympathisers to work for them is likely to continue. It’s believed both Britain and the US have informers inside the Islamic State ‘capital’ of Raqqa. Yet this seems to have been little help in stopping the actions of Mohammed Emwazi, or bringing him to justice.”
At its heart, the case of “Jihadi John” is of significance because of what it says about the real relationship between Western imperialism and ISIS. In the final analysis, ISIS is a product of the interventions by Washington and its allies in the region.
Armed Islamist movements existed in neither Iraq nor Syria—nor, for that matter, in Libya—before US imperialism intervened to topple secular Arab governments in all three countries.
It is not only a matter of these movements emerging out of the mayhem, death and destruction unleashed by the US military and CIA in these countries at the cost of well over a million lives and wholesale social devastation.
Like Al Qaeda before it, ISIS is a creation of US and Western imperialism, unleashed upon the peoples of the region in pursuit of definite strategic aims. In Libya, Islamists now affiliated with ISIS provided the principal ground forces for the US-NATO war to topple Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria, ISIS, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front and similar Islamist militias have played a similar role in a war for regime-change that has been backed by Washington and its allies.
By all accounts, so-called “foreign fighters” comprise the largest component of the “rebels” who have sought to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the past three-and-a-half years. Estimates have put their number at over 20,000, with recruits drawn from throughout Europe, North America, Central Asia and elsewhere.
While the media presents the flow of these fighters into Syria as something of a mystery, the question of how they have gotten there can be easily answered. The CIA, MI5 and other Western intelligence agencies have not merely turned a blind eye to Islamists traveling from their respective countries to the Syrian battlefield, it has offered them active encouragement. Turkey, a key US ally, has facilitated the flow of these elements across its border into Syria.
It should be recalled that Western governments and media painted forces like ISIS in Syria as democratic “revolutionaries” waging a progressive struggle against a tyrant. The war, which was stoked through orchestrated provocations, was cited as a justification for “humanitarian” intervention.
Arms and funding poured in to back the largely Islamist “rebels,” even as Washington and its allies steadily escalated the threat of direct intervention. The Obama administration went to the brink of launching a savage bombardment of Syria in September 2013, only to beat a tactical retreat in the face of unexpected opposition.
The Islamist forces on the ground in Syria felt themselves the victims of a double-cross. Much like the CIA’s Cuban counterrevolutionaries at the Bay of Pigs a half-century earlier, their promised US air support did not come and they lashed out in retribution. Ultimately, this took the form not only of the serial beheadings of Western hostages, but also the debacle inflicted upon the US-trained security forces in Iraq.
Washington has hypocritically seized upon the beheadings in an attempt to whip up support for its new intervention in the Middle East. But when similar atrocities were carried out by ISIS and its cohorts against Syrian Alawites, Christians and captured conscripts, the Obama administration looked the other way.
In the wake of the revelations about “Jihadi John,” Britain’s Tory Prime Minister David Cameron issued a ringing defense of the country’s security services, describing its members as “incredibly impressive, hard-working, dedicated, courageous.” He declared his sympathy for their “having to make incredibly difficult judgments.” He insisted that “the most important thing is to get behind them.”
If Britain were a functioning democracy, the revelations about the role of MI5 and its relations with Mohammed Emwazi and ISIS generally would be the subject of a parliamentary inquiry that could spell the fall of the government.
However, in London, as in Washington, the government has been largely taken over by the military and intelligence apparatus, whose crimes are systematically covered up with the aid of a complicit corporate-controlled media.
For workers in Britain, the US and internationally, these revelations only underscore the necessity to build up a genuine antiwar movement based on a socialist and internationalist program and in intransigent opposition to all attempts to exploit the crimes of ISIS—the Frankenstein’s monster created by imperialism—to justify the escalation of war abroad and repression at home.

Shameful American Democracy Ranks 45th In The World In Electoral Integrity

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If a person possesses the quality of being honest with strong moral principles or “moral uprightness” they are regarded as having integrity.  In American politics, particularly Republican politics, integrity is not only in short supply, it is by all estimations non-existent. Between the preponderance of outright lies and deliberate deception, the hallmark of Republican politics, it is little wonder America’s electoral process lacks integrity; particularly in states controlled by Republicans. In fact, despite being a so-called free democratic society with specific constitutional amendments guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote, Democrats have officially endorsed yet another constitutional amendment establishing the right to vote.

Now, it appears there may be a good reason for yet another voting rights amendment according to a new report placing America’s “electoral integrity” on par with Colombia and Bulgaria at 45th among the world’s democracies. Those nations are arguably not shining examples of democratic Utopias, so America’s being in their company is not a very encouraging statistic to anyone except Koch-Republicans. It is reasonable that their goal has been eliminating anything resembling “electoral integrity” for over a decade and doubtless they celebrated America’s pathetic ranking.

According to a report last year from the BradBlog, researchers at Harvard and the University of Sydney reported that after assessing the 2012 General Election, America ranked number 26; one step higher than Mexico and one below Micronesia. So in the course of one election America’s electoral integrity declined and should surprise very few Americans. It is another world ranking embarrassment for the nation that conservatives claim is exceptional, and a telling narrative about the pathetic state of this once storied example of democracy compared to the rest of the world. It is likely that there are not many Americans who would even use the term “electoral integrity” in the same sentence with American democracy.

The new report is from the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) that assessed the latest midterm elections with “additional countries” that were not included in the previous report. The report was best summarized by the statement: “Contests in the United States scored the worst performance among any long-established democracy. (bold original) Hence the 2012 Presidential election was ranked 42nd worldwide with additional countries’ statistics, while the 2014 mid-term Congressional races was ranked 45th. One reason America ranks so low according to experts who expressed their growing concern over US electoral laws and processes of voter registration, both areas of heated partisan debates.” It is true there are partisan debates due to Republicans actively disenfranchising and obstructing the voting rights of students, the poor, and people of color in the former Confederacy, but the trend is also growing in other GOP-controlled states. The apparent goal is to “bestow the privilege of voting solely on white Republican voters,” and restricting ballot box access to Democratic voters as stated by several Confederate-state Republicans.

Since the idea of electoral integrity is nearly non-existent in Americans’ consciousness, the project defined it as “meeting international standards and global norms governing the ‘appropriate’ conduct of elections.” There were about 1,500 domestic and international election experts’ involved in the study whose views were represented by forty consultants who concluded that “Elections in United States stand out as relatively poorly compared with other established democracies, and are deserving further scrutiny.” The latest report echoed the same problems from last year’s study that rated the 2012 Presidential election poorly reiterating that “The November 2014 Congressional elections got poor grades because experts were concerned about the electoral laws, voter registration, the process of drawing district boundaries, as well as regulation of campaign finance.” What they likely meant was the glaring lack of regulation of campaign finance.

The EIP particularly noted major concerns Democrats have cited such as laws restricting voter registration efforts in Southern states and new laws denying access to the polls that the study found were “increasingly polarized and litigious ever since the 2000 ‘Florida’ debacle generating growing controversy in state-houses and the courts.” Apparently the report is referring to the Koch-Court striking down the Voting Rights Act that opened the floodgates for Confederate states’ to devise and impose new Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise the poor and people of color. In fact the study did note that “America also suffers from exceptionally partisan and decentralized arrangements for electoral administration and suggested the role of money in American politics deserves more detailed scrutiny.”

The one area the study could not assess for integrity is the “computerized voting systems,” or touch-screen voting machines, that are “100% impossible to verify for accuracy after polls have closed.” Hand marked paper ballots can be checked for veracity after the fact, but they are either counted by optical scans and are only used in about 60% of the nation. The study did give a cursory look at things such as ballot box security, results announced ‘without delay, if counts are conducted fairly, or if election monitors are restricted from having polling place access Otherwise, it was nearly impossible to accurately rank how fair the ballot counting process really is, and how close to the bottom American elections really are.

The truly sad commentary about this latest American humiliation is that it is certain to get worse, and with the Koch brothers pledging nearly a billion dollars to buy the government in 2016, it will get much, much worse. Part and parcel of the Koch’s influence is from their heavily-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity influence on Republican states’ legislation to restrict voting rights in and outside the former Confederacy. Republicans and ALEC claim the need for restricting voter access is an overwhelming problem of rampant voter fraud. However, It is worth reiterating that according to a comprehensive study, the actual number of voter fraud incidents between 2000 and 2014 was 31 out of more than 1 billion votes cast in every general, primary, special, and municipal election in the United States during that 14 year period according to the Federal Election Commission.

Many Americans are well-aware that this country’s so-called representative democracy is a joke, and it is obvious that the low voter turnout is in part due to the increasing obstruction plaguing many prospective voters. America was purported, at one time, to be the world’s shining example of how democracy is supposed to work, but between the Koch Supreme Court giving their blessing to unlimited campaign financing and giving former Confederate states free rein to impose harsh voter restriction laws, it is no wonder America is ranked 45th in electoral integrity among the world’s democracies and frankly, it is amazing that it is not ranked at the bottom of the list; something the Koch Republicans will certainly rectify by the next election.

The National-Security State’s ISIS Racket

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The official enemy de jour that has everyone all riled up and scared is ISIS. If U.S. forces don’t bomb ISIS, the argument goes, ISIS will take over Iraq, and Syria, and Lebanon, and Europe, and Asia, and Latin America, and then the United States. If the bombs don’t fall on ISIS, before long Americans will be speaking Arabic and their children will be studying the Koran in America’s government schools.

It’s all just one great big racket — a racket based on “national security,” a term that isn’t even found in the Constitution and that doesn’t even have an objective meaning. The only way that the U.S. national-security state apparatus — i.e., the vast military establishment and military empire, the CIA, and the NSA — can justify its continued existence is by ginning up crisis after crisis with the aim of keeping the citizenry filled with fear, anxiety, and depression. The apparatus then becomes people’s sedative, assuring them that everything is going to be okay because the apparatus is the only thing keeping them safe.

Never mind that the national-security apparatus produces the very threats it then uses to scare people with. After all, did anyone hear of ISIS before the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, a country that had never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so?

No. That’s because there was no ISIS before the apparatus invaded and occupied Iraq. It was the invasion and occupation, along with other interventions by the apparatus, such as in Syria and Libya, that has produced ISIS, the new, scary enemy of the day.

But of course, no statist wants to hear that. The national-security state is akin to a god, one that is keeping them safe from all those scary creatures thousands of miles away from American shores, creatures that are brought into existence by the very policies of the apparatus itself.

With its ongoing, perpetual crises and wars, the apparatus is also serving as a fount of taxpayer-funded largess for the vast armies of “defense” contractors who are feeding at the public trough on a permanent basis.

As an aside, have you noticed that while some young people are traveling to the Middle East to join ISIS, hardly any Americans are traveling to Iraq to join up with the Iraqi army to fight ISIS. I suppose one possibility is that most everyone is a coward and won’t fight to protect our “national security.” Another possibility, the more likely one in my opinion, is that deep down everyone knows that this is all a crock.

The perpetual crises and fear-mongering are not a new phenomenon. We saw it throughout the Cold War, when the same fear-mongering was being done about communists that is now being done about ISIS, terrorists, and Muslims.

If we don’t stop the communists from infiltrating Latin America, we were told, it won’t be long before Americans are speaking communist. Cuba is a communist beachhead, they repeatedly said, one that was determined to turn the rest of Latin America and then the United States Red.

That’s why the national-security state installed and supported brutal military dictatorships in Guatemala and Chile, entered into a partnership with the Mafia to assassinate Cuba’s president Fidel Castro, participated as a partner in the international torture and assassination ring based in Latin America known as DINA, and much more — all to ensure that the communist-socialist infection didn’t spread to Latin American countries, especially by democratic means. Democracy had to be destroyed, we were told, in order to save democracy.

The tens of thousands of people who were rounded up, tortured, raped, disappeared, executed, and assassinated, were considered an societal inoculation — like a vaccine — to ensure that Latin American regimes and then the United States didn’t go Red.

That’s what arming the Contras and starting an extremely brutal, deadly, and destructive civil war in Nicaragua was all about — to oust the communist-socialist regime of Daniel Ortega. It was also what the invasion of Grenada was all about.

The idea was that if the radical leftists were to gain the reins of power in Latin American countries, especially through democratic elections, the United States as we know it would cease to exist.

It was all a Cold War, national-security state, fear-mongering racket, one that was keeping the national-security state apparatus in existence and, equally important, keeping all those “defense” looters and plunderers in high cotton.

The fact is that it wouldn’t have made any difference at all, insofar as the United States was concerned, if every Latin American country went Red.

How do we know that? Because after the national-security state lost communism as its official enemy, many of those Latin American regimes have ended up with socialist presidents, many of them duly elected by their citizenry. Consider: Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and more.

In fact, check out this Wikipedia entry entitled “Pink Tide.” It states “In 2005, the BBC reported that out of 350 million people in South America, three out of four of them lived in countries ruled by ‘left-leaning presidents’ elected during the preceding six years.”

Yet, as everyone knows, the United States is still standing. The United States wasn’t the final domino that fell to the communists. Oh sure, we’ve got our own welfare state, which is no different in principle from the socialism that all those Latin American socialist regimes believe in, but that’s just because Americans believe in socialism as much as Latin Americans do, not because Latin American regimes have gone socialist.

It won’t make any difference to the freedom and well-being of the American people if ISIS takes over Iraq, Syria, Libya, or any other area of the Middle East, any more than it has made a difference that socialists and communists have taken over countries in Latin America. It’s all just a fear-mongering racket, one designed to keep the cancerous tumor known as the national-security state, along with its vast army of “defense” plunderers and looters, attached to the body politic, where it is sucking the lifeblood out of the American people.

What a racket. It’s amazing that so many Americans continue to fall for it.