Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Social inequality and American politics

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Last week the New York Times released the results of an opinion poll, conducted in collaboration with CBS News, showing overwhelming and growing popular opposition to social inequality in the United States.
The details of the poll are striking. Asked whether “In today’s economy, everyone has a fair chance to get ahead in the long run,” for example, 61 percent of participants said that “just a few people at the top have a chance to get ahead,” compared to 35 percent who said that “anyone can get ahead.” Significantly, the percentage of people who chose the latter response hasfallen by 17 percentage points since a similar poll conducted in early 2014.
Even more strikingly, 66 percent of participants said that “the distribution of money and wealth in this country… should be more equal,” compared with only 27 percent who said it was fair. The margin between the two responses was 39 percentage points.
When the question was put a different way, the results were even more pronounced. Asked whether social inequality is a “problem that needs to be addressed now, a problem but one that does not need to be addressed now or not a problem,” only 17 percent of respondents said that social inequality was “not a problem.”
Similarly, 68 percent of those polled said they favored raising taxes on people who earn more than $1 million a year, and 71 percent of respondents said they favored raising the federal minimum wage. Eighty percent favored requiring employers to offer paid leave to parents of new children and employees caring for sick family members, and 85 percent favored requiring employers to offer paid sick leave.
Polls such as the one carried out by the Times are always an imperfect reflection of the actual state of public opinion. Moreover, other surveys have consistently found that Americans significantly underestimate the actual level of social inequality. If anything, therefore, the results understate the overwhelming hostility of the population to the essential feature of American and indeed world capitalism: social inequality.
The widespread opposition to social inequality in the United States stands in sharp contradiction to the policies pursued by the entire political establishment. Indeed, the presidency of Barack Obama, who presented himself in the 2008 election as the champion of the “middle class,” has seen one of the most precipitous increases in social inequality in US history.
During only the first four years of the Obama presidency, the top 0.1 percent of the population increased their share of US wealth from 19 percent to 22 percent, while the top 1 percent of income earners in the US took in 95 percent of all income gains since 2009.
The enrichment of the financial elite has paralleled an enormous decline in US median household income, which has fallen by 12 percent, with a typical household earning $6,400 less per year in 2013 than it did in 2007.
The immense growth of social inequality over this period has been the direct result of the policies pursued by the Obama administration, which has sought to make the working class pay for the financial crisis that erupted in 2008 while protecting and expanding the wealth of the financial oligarchy.
The concerns within the ruling class over the implications of its policies can be seen in efforts to promote figures such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” running as a Democrat in the 2016 election. Sanders, who rhetorically denounces social inequality, is in fact a thoroughly conventional bourgeois politician.
The stated opposition of Sanders to social inequality is entirely of the same character of that of Obama: i.e., purely rhetorical. His candidacy is merely an attempt to keep the growing opposition to social inequality and the capitalist system within the confines of the Democratic Party.
Whatever the rhetoric of figures such as Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, there exists no section of the political establishment that supports any genuine reduction in social inequality. The most telling example is perhaps de Blasio, promoted as a champion of “progressivism” within the Democratic Party, who last month announced a series of measures hiking housing fees for low-income New York City residents while moving to privatize sections of public housing.
What none of these figures can acknowledge is that the growth of social inequality and the unprecedented concentration of wealth is a product of the capitalist system that they all defend, a system that is based on the subordination of all aspects of life to a financial aristocracy that controls the entire political system.
In contrast to the pseudo-left defenders of the Democratic Party, who have sought to present race and gender as the most important social categories, the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) has insisted that the growth of social inequity is the central political issue in contemporary society. The ICFI has insisted that social inequality is itself the expression of the division of society into two great classes; the working class, the vast majority of the population, and the ruling class.
The opposition to social inequality expressed in the New York Times poll is a product of both the objective reality of world capitalism and the experiences that the American working class has made over the past eight years.
But this spontaneous sentiment must be given a conscious political program, based on the understanding that the fight against social inequality is a revolutionary question that is inextricably tied to the independent political mobilization of the working class against capitalism. The creation of a genuinely egalitarian society means the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement with the democratic control over economic life.

“USA Freedom Act”: A fig leaf for illegal spying

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In the wake of Senate passage of the USA Freedom Act, signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday evening, the corporate-controlled American media has gone into overdrive to portray the legislation as a major effort to curb mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, the largest single component of the vast US intelligence apparatus.
In fact, the bill—which has received the endorsement of the Obama administration and war criminals such as CIA Director John Brennan—is not an effort to curtail the vast and illegal activities of the US intelligence agency, but rather a means of ensuring that these activities can continue, now with a pseudo-legal foundation that has been explicitly endorsed by Congress.
Just as Obama barred prosecution of CIA officials for torturing prisoners, and prosecution of Bush administration leaders for waging war in Iraq based up lies, there will be no accountability for more than a decade of illegal spying on the American people. On the contrary, the program of mass surveillance of telecommunications and the Internet, directed against the democratic rights of the entire population of the globe, will intensify.
The bill makes only one significant, largely cosmetic, change in the hundreds of government spying programs directed against the American people, transferring responsibility for the retention of telephone metadata from the NSA back to the telecommunications companies. The telecoms are required to run NSA queries through their databases once the searches are approved by the FISA court, a longstanding rubber stamp for the US security services.
As the British-based Financial Times noted, the bill is “a much less significant change in the way the intelligence community actually operates” than the political furor surrounding it would suggest. “The surveillance legislation reform still leaves the US intelligence community with formidable legal powers and tools to collect data and other online information,” the newspaper continued, adding that intelligence officials regarded the legislation as damage control required after Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive and unconstitutional NSA spying.
The American media, however, treated the legislation as an historic watershed, a reversal of the build-up of state security powers that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Washington Post headlined its analysis, “Congressional action on NSA is a milestone in the post-9/11 world.” The Wall Street Journal ran the headline, “Congress Reins In NSA’s Spying Powers,” over a story reporting that “the Senate voted to curb the collection of millions of Americans’ phone records, the first significant retrenchment of government spying powers since the 9/11 attacks.”
The most overstated and effusive presentation of the bill came in the New York Times, the principal shaper of liberal public opinion and a slavish supporter of the Obama administration. Its account was headlined, “US Surveillance in Place Since 9/11 Is Sharply Limited.” That the bill affected only one of hundreds of intrusive surveillance programs went unmentioned.
The news analysis claimed, “The legislation signaled a cultural turning point for the nation, almost 14 years after the Sept. 11 attacks heralded the construction of a powerful national security apparatus. The shift against the security state began with the revelation by Edward J. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, about the bulk collection of phone records. The backlash was aided by the growth of interconnected communication networks run by companies that have felt manhandled by government prying.”
This paragraph includes a mass of falsifications and distortions. First, the “powerful national security apparatus” was in existence well before September 11, 2001—indeed, the role of the CIA, NSA and FBI in permitting and even directly facilitating the terror attacks, which allowed the US government to go forward with a long-planned program of militaristic aggression, including invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, raises many troubling questions.
The “shift against the security state” prompted by Snowden’s revelations was a shift in popular opinion, not a change in the policies of either Congress or the Obama administration, both of whom defended the intelligence apparatus and demanded Snowden’s arrest and prosecution for treason. And Snowden revealed far more than the bulk collection of phone records, releasing tens of thousands of documents on myriad illegal NSA spy programs directed at both the American population and the entire world.
Nor did American companies play any significant role in opposing government spying. On the contrary, Snowden’s revelations included the exposure of collaboration by Google, Microsoft and dozens of other Silicon Valley giants, and well as the entire telecommunications industry, with the build-up of an American police-state apparatus.
The Times article notes the admission by the NSA that the telephone metadata collection program had played no role in thwarting any terrorist attack. But it then fails to ask the most obvious question: If the telephone metadata program has never been effective against terrorism, why are the NSA, the CIA, the Obama administration and the leadership of Congress so adamant about defending it and preserving it, with whatever modifications are needed to give the illusion of “reform”? What is this data really being used for?
The only politically serious answer is that the US government is creating a vast database of the social and political views and associations of the American people, to be used to direct its repression when a mass movement erupts from below, against the capitalist system.
These efforts have not been halted for a single day, either by the supposed “shutdown” of the telephone metadata on May 31, or by the planned transfer of the program from the NSA to the telecoms in six months. The US military-intelligence apparatus, by far the largest and most powerful in the world, is the main threat to the democratic rights of the American people. No amount of media propaganda and peddling of illusions in “NSA reform” can disguise this reality indefinitely.
There are, unfortunately, indications that Edward Snowden himself may be among those taken in by the pretense of surveillance “reform.” Snowden addressed an Amnesty International conference in London Tuesday, before the final Senate vote, speaking by video link from Russia, where he remains in exile. Referring to the legislation, he told the group, “This is meaningful, it is important and actually historic that this has been refuted, not just by the courts, but by Congress as well and the president himself is saying this mass surveillance has to end.”
Snowden is dangerously na├»ve, and misled by his associates in such groups as Amnesty, the Guardian newspaper, and the ACLU, who share a liberal political outlook imbued with illusions in the democratic pretensions of American imperialism, and particularly in the Democratic Party and the Obama administration. Despite his courage in exposing the extent of NSA spying—and the considerable, continuing threat to his own physical security—Snowden is taking an entirely credulous approach to the maneuvers of official Washington.
He argues, “For the first time in recent history we found that despite the claims of government, the public made the final decision and that is a radical change that we should seize on, we should value and we should push further.” The actual course of events is far different. The “public” was entirely excluded from the decision-making process. The military-intelligence apparatus called the shots. The Obama administration and Congress took their marching orders. The USA Freedom Act, like the USA Patriot Act before it, serves the interests of the emerging American police state.
Snowden reacted with revulsion to the massive NSA spying campaign, out of sincere democratic convictions. But the growth of a surveillance state is not simply the product of post-9/11 paranoia, or even the drive for power on the part of individual politicians, generals and intelligence officials. The growth of a police-state apparatus proceeds, as it were, organically, out of the extreme levels of social inequality in American society, and endless wars. In other words, the military-intelligence apparatus is not the cause, but one malignant manifestation, of a deep-rooted and historic crisis of American capitalism.
Whatever the gestures to civil liberties made by Obama—while he continues drone-missile assassinations, Guantanamo, and the whole panoply of American militarism—the American ruling class he serves has no intention of diminishing the repressive powers of the state machine that exists to defend its property and wealth.
There is a profound political lesson here. Courageous individuals like Snowden and organizations like WikiLeaks can make important exposures. But only the working class, in the United States and internationally, can put an end to the ongoing attacks on democratic rights. This requires the building of a mass revolutionary movement directed at the defense of all the social and democratic rights of working people.

New Data Offers First Infuriating Glimpse at How the Richest 0.001 Percent Pay Income Taxes

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Tax day doesn’t sting much if you live at the gilded edge, according to new data on how the top one-hundredth of one percent and the top one-thousandth of a percent of all filers pay their income taxes. People who make tens of millions of dollars enjoyed falling income tax rates and ballooning wealth for a decade as middle-class taxpayers floundered.
The new Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data helps illustrate the logic behind Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) call for radically reshaping the American income tax system to create pricey new brackets for extremely high earners. The numbers provide a deeper look inside the highest income echelon, breaking out data on income tax rates and total yearly earnings in previously unpublished detail. In the last year of the Bush tax cuts, there were well over a thousand people who reported more than $60 million in earnings but paid federal income tax rates far below 20 percent.
In late May, Sanders called for restoring top income tax rates as high as 90 percent. The graduated income tax system means that policymakers could create new tax brackets up at that level without raising taxes on everyone below whatever level of wealth they choose to target.
Sanders based his comments on generalized information about wealth inequality, but the new IRS data on income inequality bolster his argument. Currently, the highest income tax bracket and capital gains tax bracket each kick in at a little over $400,000 in annual income. But there are nearly 14,000 tax filers who earned more than $12 million in 2012 as members of the best-paid 0.01 percent of all taxpayers, according to the IRS, and about 1,360 who earned over $62 million that year. Their vast earnings were not taxed any more heavily – and indeed, they paid a lower overall income tax rate than their merely one-percent brethren.
It is the first time the IRS has ever broken out income tax data at the very top end of the earnings spectrum. Previous releases have shown the top 1 percent and the top 0.1 percent of filers, but the new data drill deeper. There were a little under 1,400 income tax returns filed in that very richest sliver of data in 2012, the agency reports, with an average income of roughly $161 million for the year.
The poorest filer to qualify for that group in 2012 made $62,068,187 in adjusted gross income (AGI). Like a tax wonk’s version of the “must be this high to ride” sign at a carnival, these threshold income levels for each grouping in the IRS data offer working definitions of the economic class each category depicts.
The income threshold that defined the top 50 percent of all tax returns offers a snapshot of life in the economic middle, and its decline over the decade is bad news for middle-class families. Other indicators of life in the middle over the same timeframe as the IRS data paint a dim picture. Wages were stagnant or even falling for these families, yet the cost of the core components of a middle-class life jumped by thousands of dollars.
The inflation-adjusted IRS numbers confirm what other evidence has suggested: middle-class families have seen their earning power decline significantly even as life in the fast lane has gotten richer and richer. One-percenter incomes were about one-sixth higher in 2012 than in 2003, after adjusting for inflation. The richest one-thousandth of a percent of tax filers made about 75 percent more than they had a decade prior. But as those extremely rich people got richer, the middle class got poorer. The income threshold for being in the top half of all tax returns fell by 8 percent over the decade, creating the 2012 disparity between .001-percenters who earned at least $62 million, one-percenters making $435,000 or more, and workers paying federal income taxes on earnings as low as $36,055.
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Part of the reason the 2012 data show such a dramatic gap is that wealthy people had incentive to cash out investments to take advantage of the final year of the lower Bush-era tax rates on capital gains. But because capital gains taxes are still significantly below normal income taxes, and because there are still no tax brackets targeting people who routinely earn several million dollars in a single year, the general pattern shown in these numbers is not going anywhere until the tax code gets radically revised.
The federal-only, income-only tax data do not factor in the state taxes, sales taxes, and other contributions to the public weal made by the half of the country who earned so little that they owed no federal income tax. But the statistics on the federal income tax rate paid at various Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) levels illustrate how flat America’s primary tax collection tool has become after decades of chipping away at a system that was much more steeply progressive prior to the Kennedy presidency.
If your AGI was above $36,055 in 2012, you were in the top 50 percent of tax returns. You are part of the herd that paid nearly all of the income tax revenue collected for the year. The 68 million individual taxpayers represented in that group paid an average federal income tax rate of 14.33 percent – just over 3 percentage points lower than what you paid if you were in the top one-thousandth of one percent of all earners. That means a group of about 1,400 taxpayers who earned an average of $161 million in 2012 paid less than a fifth of that one-year fortune to the government in income taxes.
People who made more than $60 million kept more of that income in 2012 than those who made $13 million. The income tax code ends up being regressive at the very top — it takes a smaller piece of the very biggest pies — almost entirely because of capital gains taxes. Previous research by the Center for American Progress’ Harry Stein has found that 95 percent of the decline in income tax rates at the tippy-top of the economic spectrum can be explained by capital gains tax rate cuts.
The income tax system was only minimally regressive overall throughout this decade of IRS data, and at the very top it actually turned around and became regressive. These design flaws have helped to create the extreme wealth inequality that’s motivated Sanders to campaign against “a casino-type capitalism…where the people on top have lost any sense of responsibility for the rest of society,” as the Vermont socialist put it to CNBC in May.

US Senate approves extension of NSA spying

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The US Senate voted by a top-heavy bipartisan majority Tuesday to approve legislation that extends several key spying programs of the National Security Agency. President Obama declared his intention to sign the bill into law “as soon as I get it” in order to allow the NSA to resume the collection of telephone metadata and several other surveillance efforts that had nominally been suspended with the expiration of authorization under the Patriot Act Sunday night.
While the White House, congressional leaders of both parties and the American media are all portraying the so-called USA Freedom Act as a significant restriction on NSA spying, an effort to “strike a balance” between security and civil liberties, it is nothing of the kind.
In the first place, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, whose expiration May 31 made passage of the new authorization necessary, only covers a tiny fraction of the vast surveillance operations of the NSA. The collection of telephone metadata on every American was only one of the many of these illegal and unconstitutional programs first exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, now in exile in Russia.
In a bitter floor speech just before the final vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced the bill as “a victory for Edward Snowden,” but this is merely part of the congressional play-acting aimed at giving the American people the illusion that something is being done about illegal government spying, when it continues on a virtually unlimited and ever-expanding scale.
Only hours before McConnell’s diatribe, the Associated Press revealed yet another secret government spying program—hundreds of flights by a fleet of FBI planes that conduct low-flying video and cellphone surveillance over dozens of American cities .
McConnell denounced the bill for supposedly “taking away another tool from those who defend us every day” because it phases out the bulk collection of telephone metadata by the NSA, leaving collection of data to the telecommunications companies, which are in turn required to respond to NSA search requests once they are approved by the rubber-stamp FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court.
The bill contains a few other cosmetic efforts to conceal the build-up of police-state powers in America. The secret FISA court is required to hear from privacy advocates and document its decisions on surveillance policy, rather than, as in the past, hearing only from government prosecutors and making all its decisions in secret. This will have no material effect on the surveillance state.
The Senate passed the grossly misnamed USA Freedom Act by a vote of 67-32, with nearly all the opposition coming from right-wing Republicans, led by McConnell, who objected to even the minor limitations on the surveillance operations of the US government contained in the bill. The House passed the same bill last month by an overwhelming margin of 388 to 38, with the backing of Speaker John Boehner and the entire Republican leadership.
The 67-32 Senate vote actually expresses near-unanimous support for the US intelligence apparatus. Democrats backed the bill by 44-2. Republicans were split, 23 in favor and 30 against, but nearly all those opposed wanted no restrictions on NSA spying, even of a cosmetic character.
After McConnell’s vitriolic attack on the Obama White House for supposedly capitulating to Edward Snowden, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid retorted that it was McConnell who had undermined US spy operations by his mistaken handling of delaying tactics by Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, leading to the supposed shutdown of the telephone metadata program by the NSA Sunday night.
Final passage came after the Senate narrowly rejected all three amendments put forward by McConnell and the Republican leadership to further water down the bill’s anemic “reform” element. One amendment would have set the transition period from NSA databases to telecom databases at a year, rather than six months. Another would have required the telecoms to notify the NSA before any change in data retention policy, and mandated the NSA to certify that it was ready to make the transition without any loss of ability to conduct searches. The third amendment would have eliminated the requirement that the FISA court report to Congress on significant changes in the interpretation of surveillance laws.
The amendments were less important substantively than as an attempt to delay passage of the legislation indefinitely, since an amended bill would have to go back to the House for further deliberation. In that event, the Senate Republican leadership hoped to push through a simple extension of all Patriot Act surveillance authority, without any cosmetic changes.
A US Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month that Section 215 of the Patriot Act did not provide adequate legal authority for the telephone metadata collection—in effect, finding the program had been operating illegally for 14 years. The White House and the congressional leadership of both parties moved quickly to reestablish the program using a different legal process—FISA warrants served on the telecoms—to accomplish the same end.
Appearing on the CBS program Face the Nation Sunday, CIA Director John Brennan denounced the protracted wrangling in the Senate and whipping up fears of new terrorist attacks—despite the well-documented fact that none of the Section 215 programs has played any role in disrupting terrorist activities. “Anyone who is satisfied with letting this critical intelligence capability go dark isn’t taking the terrorist threat seriously,” Brennan said. “I’d urge the Senate to pass the bipartisan USA Freedom Act, and do so expeditiously.”
Brennan declared, “I think terrorist elements have watched very carefully what has happened here in the United States, whether or not it’s disclosures of classified information or whether it’s changes in the law and policies. They are looking for the seams to operate within.”
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote, Obama made increasingly strident denunciations of the congressional delay in approving the extension of NSA spying authority. The White House issued a statement Sunday night, after the expiration of Section 215, declaring, “We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible. On a matter as critical as our national security, individual senators must put aside their partisan motivations and act swiftly. The American people deserve nothing less.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that the American people faced “unnecessary risk,” because of the loss of surveillance tools “our national security professionals can use to keep us safe.” In reality, there was no change in the operation of the vast US police-intelligence apparatus, as the New York Times admitted, reporting that “interviews with law enforcement and intelligence officials about what they will do in the interim suggest there are multiple workarounds to the gap.”

Going for Broke in Ponzi Scheme America

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It couldn’t be a sunnier, more beautiful day to exit your lives—or enter them—depending on how you care to look at it. After all, here you are four years later in your graduation togs with your parents looking on, waiting to celebrate. The question is: Celebrate what exactly?

In possibly the last graduation speech of 2015, I know I should begin by praising your grit, your essential character, your determination to get this far. But today, it’s money, not character, that’s on my mind. For so many of you, I suspect, your education has been a classic scam and you’re not even attending a “for profit” college—an institution of higher learning, that is, officially set up to take you for a ride.

Maybe this is the moment, then, to begin your actual education by looking back and asking yourself what you should really have learned on this campus and what you should expect in the scams—I mean, years—to come. Many of you—those whose parents didn’t have money—undoubtedly entered these stately grounds four years ago in relatively straitened circumstances.  In an America in which corporate profits have risen impressively, it’s been springtime for billionaires, but when it comes to ordinary Americans, wages have been relatively stagnant, jobs (the good ones, anyway) generally in flight, and times not exactly of the best.  Here was a figure that recently caught my eye, speaking of the world you’re about to step into: in 2014, the average CEO received 373 times the compensation of the average worker.  Three and a half decades ago, that number was a significant but not awe-inspiring 42 times.

Still, you probably arrived here eager and not yet in debt. Today, we know that the class that preceded you was the most indebted in the history of higher education, and you’ll surely break that “record.” And no wonder, with college tuitions still rising wildly (up 1,120% since 1978).  Judging by last year’s numbers, about 70% of you had to take out loans simply to make it through here, to educate yourself.  That figure was a more modest 45% two decades ago.  On average, you will have rung up least $33,000 in debt and for some of you the numbers will be much higher.  That, by the way, is more than double what it was those same two decades ago.

We have some sense of how this kind of debt plays out in the years to come and the news isn’t good. Those of you with major school debts will be weighed down in all sorts of ways. You’ll find yourselves using your credit cards more than graduates without such debt.  You’ll be less likely to buy a home in the future.  A few decades from now, you’ll have accumulated significantly less wealth than your unindebted peers. In other words, a striking percentage of you will leave this campus in the kind of financial hole that—given the job market of 2015—you may have a problem making your way out of.

For those who took a foreign language in your college years, in translation you’ve paid stunning sums you didn’t have to leave yourself, like any foreclosed property, underwater. Worse yet, for those of you who dream of being future doctors, lawyers, financial wizards, architects, or English professors (if there are any of those anymore), that’s only the beginning. You’ll still have to pay exorbitantly for years of graduate school or professional training, which means ever more debt to come.

Does this really sound like an education to you or does it sound more like a Ponzi scheme, like you’ve been scammed?

Do I understand how all this works?  No.  I’m no expert on the subject.  What anyone should be able to see, however, is that the promise of higher education has, in this century, sunk low indeed and that what your generation has been learning how to endure while still in school is a form of peonage.  I’d binge drink, too, under the circumstances!

Nobody feels good when they’ve been scammed, but at least you’re not alone on this great campus in needing to reassess what higher education means.  Many of your teachers turned out to be untenured part-timers, getting pitiful salaries.  They, too, were being scammed.  And even some of their esteemed tenured colleagues (as I know from friends of mine) are remarkably deep in the Ponzi pits.  It turns out that, as government money flowing onto campus has dried up, the pressure on some of those eminent professors, particularly in graduate programs, to essentially raise their own salaries has only been rising—a very highbrow version of peonage.  They increasingly need patrons, which generally means “friendly” corporations.  Talk about a scam!

Demobilizing You

Many of you undoubtedly think that your education is now over and it’s time to enter the “real world.”  I have news for you: you’ve been in that world for the last four years, hence the debt you’re dragging around behind you.  So, on a day when the sun’s in your eyes and it couldn’t be more apparent that the world’s not what you’ve been told it was, maybe you should apply the principles of the scam artist to the world you’re about to enter.  Unless you do so, you’ll simply be scammed again in the next phase of your life.

Like the rest of us, presidents and politicians of every stripe have regularly told you that you belong to the one “indispensible” nation on the planet, a country “exceptional” in every way.  As a college-educated American, you’ve similarly been assured of how important you’ll be to that exceptional land.

Get over it.  You’re going to find yourself living in an ever greyer, grimmer country—if you don’t believe me, check out the government’s unwillingness to fundessential infrastructuremaintenance—to which you will be remarkably irrelevant.  And if the political elite, the plutocratic class, and the national security state have anything to do with it, in the future you’ll become ever more so.  In other words, you are to be relegated to the sidelines of what now passes for American life.

Behind this reality, there’s a history.  Since the Vietnam era, the urgeto demobilizeAmericans, to put them out to pasture, to stop them from interfering in the running of “their” country has only grown stronger.  When it comes to the military, for instance, the draft was sent to the trash bin of history in 1973 and most Americans were long ago demobilized by the arrival of an “all volunteer” force.  So, today, you have no obligation whatsoever to be part of that military, to serve in what is no longer, in the traditional sense, a citizen’s army.

If that military isn’t really yours, the wars it’s been fighting since the dawn of the twenty-first century haven’t been your wars either, nor—despite the responsibility the Constitution reserves to Congress for declaring war—have they been that body’s.  Congress still has to pony up sums so extravagant for what’s charmingly called “defense” that the military budgets of the next seven countries combineddon’t equal them.  It has, however, little genuine say about what wars are fought. Even when, as with the Islamic State, it is offered the modest opportunity to pass a new authorizationfor a war already long underway, its representatives, like most Americans, now prefer to remain on the sidelines.  In the meantime, the White House runs its own drone assassination campaignsvia the CIA without anyone else’s say-so, while secretive paramilitariesand a secret military—the Special Operations forces—cocooned inside the larger military and growing like madhave changed the face of American war and it’s none of your business.

Your role in all this is modest indeed: to pay as little attention as you want, endlessly thankthe troops for their “service” when you run across them at airports or elsewhere, and leave it at that.  Of course, given the sums, verging on a trillion dollarsa year, that “we” now put into the U.S. military and relatednational security outfits, and given our endlesswars, conflicts, raids, and secret operations, that military does at least provide some job opportunities, though it has its own version of job flight—to so-called private contractors (once known as “mercenaries”).

And if you think it’s only the military from which you’ve been demobilized, think again.  In these last years, so much of what the American government does has been swallowed up in a blanketof heavily enforced secrecy and fierce prosecutionsof whistleblowers.  An expandingnational security state, accountable neither to you nor to the legal system, has proven eager indeed to surveil your life, but not be seen by you.  In growing realms, that is, what once would have been called “the people’s business” is no longer your business.

Your role, such as it is, is to get out of the way of the real players.  As with the military, so with that national security state: Americans are to thank its officials and operatives for their service and otherwise, for their own “safety,” remain blissfully ignorant of whatever “their” government does, unless that government chooses to tell them about it.

The Corruption Sweepstakes

It hardly needs to be said that this isn’t the normal definition of a working democracy or, for that matter, of citizenship.  Other than casting a vote every now and then, you are to know next to nothing about what your government does in your name.  And speaking of that vote, you’re being sidelined there, too, and buried in an avalanche of money.  Admittedly, in the media campaign season that now goes on non-stop from one election to the next, sooner or later you can still enter a polling place, if you care to, and cast your ballot.  Otherwise step aside.  These days, the first primary season or “Koch primary” is no longer for voters at all.  Instead, prospective candidates audition for theblessingsand cash of plutocrats.

Just how the vast sums of money flooding into American politics do their dirty work may not matter that much.  Specific contributions from the .01%, enacting their version of trickle-down politics, may not even elect specific candidates.  What matters most is the deluge itself.  These days in the American political system, money quite literally talks (especially on TV).  Via ads, it screams.  In the 2016 election season in which an unprecedented $10 billionis expected to be spent and just about every candidate will need his or her “sugar daddies,” the politicians will begin to resemble you; that is, they will find themselves dragging around previously unheard of debts to various plutocrats, industries, and deep pockets of every sort for the rest of their careers.

Take just two recent examples of the new politics of money.  As the New York Times reportedrecently, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been supported by a single billionaire auto dealer, Norman Braman, for his entire political career.  Braman hired him as a lawyer, hired his wife as a consultant to a family foundation, financed his legislative agenda, helped cover his salary at a local college, helped him right his personal finances and deal with his debt load, and is now about to put millions of dollars into his presidential campaign.  Rubio, as the article indicates, has returned the favor.  Though no one would write such a thing, this makes the senator quite literally a “kept” candidate.  Other plutocrats like the Koch brothers and their network of investors, reputedly ready to drop almost a billion dollarsinto the 2016 campaign, have been more profligate in spreading around their support and favors.

Now, jump across the political aisle and consider Hillary Clinton.  As the Washington Post reportedrecently, she received a payment from eBay of $315,000 for a 20-minute talk at a “summit” that tech company sponsored on women in the workplace.  Over the last 16 months, in fact, she and her husband have raked in more than $25 millionfor such talks.  Hillary’s speeches pulled in $3.2 million from the tech sector alone, which she’s now pursuing for more direct contributions to her presidential campaign.  “Less than two months [after the eBay summit],” the Post added, “Clinton was feted at the San Francisco Bay-area home of eBay chief executive John Donahoe and his wife, Eileen, for one of the first fundraisers supporting Clinton’s newly announced presidential campaign.”

Say no more, right?  I mean, it’s obvious that no one pays such sums for words (of all things!), not without ulterior motives.  No deal has to have been made.  No direct or even indirect exchange of promises is necessary.  On the face of it, there is a word for such fees, as for Rubio’s relationship with Braman, as for the investor primaries of the new election season, as for so much else that involves “dark money” and goes to the heart of the present political process.  It’s just not a word normally used about our politicians or our system, not by polite pundits and journalists.  If we were in Kabul or Baghdad, not Washington or Los Angeles, we would know just what that word was and we wouldn’t hesitate to use it: corruption.

The Un-Kept Americans

We are, it seems, enmeshed in a new hybrid system, which fits the Constitution, the classic tripartite separation of powers, and the idea of democracy increasingly poorly. We have neither an adequate name for it, nor an adequate language to describe it. I’m talking here about the “real world” in which, at least in the old-fashioned American sense, you will no longer be a “citizen” of a functioning “democracy.”

As that system, awash in plutocratic contributions to politics and taxpayer contributions to the military-industrial-homeland-security complex, morphs into something else, so will you, whether you realize it or not.  Though never thought of as such, your debt is part of the same system.  A society that programmatically trains its young into debt and calls that “higher education” is as corrupt as a wealthy country that won’t rebuild its own infrastructure.  Talk about the hollowing out of America: you are it.  No matter how substantial you may be in private, you are being impersonally emptied in what passes for the real world.

If Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton are kept politicians, then you are un-kept Americans.  You are the ones that no one felt it worth giving money to, only taking money from.

Being on the sidelines, it turns out, is an expensive affair.  The question is: What are you going to do so that you aren’t there, and in debt, forever?

Of course, there’s a simple answer to this question.  Think of it as the Rubio Solution.  You could each try to find your own billionaire.  But given the numbers involved and what you don’t have to offer in return, that seems an unlikely option.  Or, if you don’t want the version of higher education you experienced to morph into the rest of your lives, you—your generation, that is—could decide to stop thanking others for their “service” and leave those sidelines.

They’re counting on you not to serve.  They assume that you’ll just stay where you are and take it, while they fleece the rest of us.  If instead you were to start thinking about how to head for the actual playing fields of America, I guarantee one thing: you’d screw them up royally.

As you form into your processional now to exit this campus, let me just add: don’t underestimate the surprises the future has in store for all of us.  The people who sidelined you aren’t half as good at what they do as they think they are.  In so many ways, in fact, they’re a crew of bumblers.  They have no more purchase on what the future holds than you do.

You’ve proved in these years that you can get by despite lousy odds.  You’ve lived a life to which no one (other than perhaps your hard-pressed parents) has made a contribution.  You’re readier than you imagine to take our future into your hands and make something of it.  You’re ready to become actual citizens of a future democracy.  Go for broke!

Why Police Kill So Often

Go To Original

The picture is becoming clearer each day how policing in the United States is so brutally more violent than any other industrialized country.
The FBI reports 404 civilians were killed by police in 2011. All were listed as “justifiable homicides.” Under more intense questioning, it was then revealed that figures are not actually kept for “unjustified” police murders and, remarkably, their statistics rely exclusively on incidents self-reported by the cops.
Nonetheless, even with the problematic figures at hand that are surely underestimated, the number of people killed by police stands starkly apart and darkly atop the rest of the world.
The differences are staggering.
For example, in contrast to the FBI’s numbers of 404 killed by police in 2011, Australian police killed six people, police in England and Wales killed two people and German police killed six.
In England, one person was killed by police in 2014 and none in 2013 with only three reported incidents of cops even firing their weapons. In Germany during those years, zero police killings.
These national trends are not flukes.
Looked at locally, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, police killed 26 people during 2010-2014. The southwestern city had, with one percent of England’s population of 52 million, more than six times the number of fatal police shootings.
Why Police Violence?
To get an answer, let’s look at what is the same and what is different between the United States and European countries.
First, let’s dispense with the notion that the top rulers in the States are more violent than their upper-crust cousins across the pond. Absolutely untrue.
The French in Algeria acted like barbarian colonizers, as did the British in Northern Ireland. No better than the U.S. in Vietnam around the same time. More recently in the Middle East, it’s clear both Europe and the U.S. conduct murderous operations in total unison to protect their property and profit interests.
Now, let’s look at some other explanations for the extreme police violence in America.
Some say it results from cops not being screened, not being trained and not being supervised. This argument is extremely weak because it focuses on correcting individual behavior of a few “bad apples”.
In fact, contrariwise, it has been more credibly argued that racial discrimination is deeply entrenched in the institutions of society and in the policies of government.
Others blame militarization of local police departments for the excessive force while still others fault high rates of incarceration in this country which, true enough, represent almost 25 percent of all people imprisoned in the entire world.
Without a doubt, the cumulative evidence definitely shows criminalization of an entire section of the population with particular targeting of Black and Latino youth, especially for minor drug infractions.
However, regardless of the merits of some of the arguments above, I do not believe any adequately explain the blood-stained history of police violence in this country and why our record is so vastly worse than other industrialized countries.
Different Traditions, Consciousness & Organization
Essentially, I argue there is more extreme repression in the U.S. primarily because of our extremely racist and genocidal historical record, because of the high residual level of racial division and because of the low level of political organization of the working class.
The very formation of this country was rooted in genocide against indigenous people and the enslavement of millions of African peoples. Our heralded pioneer expansion westward and into the southwest in the 19th century also involved the very violent forced land expropriation of Mexican residents, some of whom were settled on the lands for centuries.
After the Civil War, extreme cruelty continued to suppress the former slaves and this, as we know, lasted until appalling Jim Crow segregationist laws were torn down through the work of the massive civil rights movement only some 50 years ago.
Such extensive brutality against peoples of color is what truly defines the much-touted “American Exceptionalism” and it has affected and infected the consciousness of the white population to this very day.
According to current polls, a large percentage of whites still disbelieves discrimination against people of color even exists. Worse, one canvass recently showed that most whites believe there is more “anti-white” discrimination than bias against Blacks. Incredible.
It is important to note that the deeply troubling formative experiences of white American settlers, as they explored and conquered, was absent in the more established nation states of Europe.
In effect, the rulers of Europe offshored their violent ways to their colonies where, as I have just argued, horrific vestiges remain deeply encrusted in the backward, racist prejudices of the white population.
By contrast, in Europe during the formative years of 19th and 20th century industrialization, workers organized mass labor, socialist and communist parties that created a strong class identity and an emphasis on collective action.
Consequently, this led to stronger social bonds that ultimately united the population in common pursuits for labor rights, government health care, more vacation time, social security, child care and maternity leave; reforms far superior to anything in the U.S.
Because of the absence of America’s violent traditions that pitted working people against each other, the European working class was better able to unite and more effectively struggle on both social and economic issues which, I believe, also explains the more measured restraint of their rulers against massively popular desires for reform.
Unfortunately, in the last 25 years, this solidarity consciousness has steadily declined and, consequently, has resulted in significant setbacks eroding social programs and the standard of living.
It was during this period that the largely nationally homogenous European white working class was also confronted for the first time by large numbers of immigrants of color. Regrettably, racism against the new arrivals has fractured the once successful and powerful national unity of the working classes.
We can expect more police violence directed at immigrants, I suspect, as the native European working class trends more like the divided working class in America.
As previously mentioned, the U.S. working class has always been separated by race and, therefore, has neither enjoyed the unity necessary to defend its most oppressed sectors nor enjoyed the substantial social gains of the European workers that can only be produced by a united movement.
This is the high price we pay for our ignorance and is a repudiation of the false notion that white workers somehow gain an advantage from their racist “white-skin privilege.”
There are no privileges that accrue from division of the working class except those that are solely advantageous to the bosses.
Disorganized Rebellion Becomes a Riot
When the most oppressed sections of the working class can no longer tolerate degrading social conditions, resistance inevitably flares up.
But, because oppressed communities of color are politically isolated and left to fend for themselves without support from organized labor or from the white majority, their frustration sometimes explodes into disorganized, individual acts of random violence which then makes the community even more vulnerable to police attacks.
This has happened in both the U.S. and Europe.
For example, authorities ruthlessly repressed the 2011 rebellion in London’s Tottenham immigrant neighborhood. Over 3100 arrests were made after a fatal shooting by police of a local resident triggered large protests.
I maintain that Tottenham residents were more endangered and police assault against them more escalated because they were isolated politically and socially from the rest of British society and particularly from the rest of the working class and its organizations.
This partitioning mirrors precisely the situation of people of color in the States.
Without question, the same sharp decline of divided U.S. labor awaits the European working class if their unity is further eroded.
Stand Up & Stand Guard
Do not expect America’s elite to change their stripes and offer a prescription for reducing police violence.
We are the ones who must change – our solidarity, our consciousness and our organization must be strengthened to end the segregation of those most oppressed among us who suffer the severest forms of police repression for rebelling against conditions few would consider livable.
There are vivid examples in our history of how militant labor fought to stay united against policies designed to pick off more vulnerable sections of the working class.
For example, Teamsters in Minneapolis during the 1930s depression patrolled the streets to move evicted poor families with their belongings strewn on the sidewalk back into their homes. Again, very conscious of being divided, the same union actively worked to unite with the unemployed, joining mass picket lines of the demanding more jobs.
Unions on the east coast and the midwest along with the International Longshore union (ILWU) on the west coast during the same period took similar militant solidarity actions in support of victims of racist courtroom frame-ups and physical assaults, all designed to keep the working class united.
With this legacy in mind, ILWU Local 10 members in the 1970s stood 24-hour guard outside the home of a Black family in Concord, Calif. that was being terrorized by Ku Klux Klan cross burnings on their lawn.
Continuing this honorable tradition, the same union conducted a May 1, 2015 shut down of the Port of Oakland in support of “Black Lives Matter.”
And, in my own city, the San Francisco Labor Council recently supported mass picketing of homes hoping to prevent “predatory loan” evictions that targeted homeowners in the city’s besieged Black community.
These are singular acts of political courage that reveal the true heart of labor solidarity. But, they are the exception, not the rule.
Contingents of organized labor should take their example and stand up and stand guard whenever people of color experience repression that otherwise would surely never be tolerated by whites.
In fact, labor in America has made its greatest accomplishments only when the gaping racial divide was breeched such as during the massively successful steel and auto union organizing drives in the 1930s.
Protection and justice for a minority can only be achieved through action by the majority, united by a common sense of fairness under the time-honored emblem of “an injury to one, is an injury to all.”
To do otherwise is to limit us all from making social gains denied us by a power structure contemptuously looking down upon a people divided as they imperially tower over us all.