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Trump's $4.4 Trillion Butcher's Bill

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 05:00

2018.2.17.Pitt MainTrump's budget proposal would be paid for on the backs of children, poor people, the elderly and the disabled, with a couple hundred billion left over for the Pentagon. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The grinding cruelty that is our daily meat and mead was crystallized in a document put forth on Monday by the White House. Trump and his people called it a budget plan, but in reality, it was a $4.4 trillion wish list of all the malice and greed at the necrotic heart of the modern Republican experience.

2018.2.17.Pitt MainTrump's budget proposal would be paid for on the backs of children, poor people, the elderly and the disabled, with a couple hundred billion left over for the Pentagon. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

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"The test of a first-rate intelligence," said F. Scott Fitzgerald, "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I like to think I'm a decently smart guy, but I may just be fooling myself if ol' Fitz has it right, because I am absolutely up against the ragged edge of that premise.

I believe, in the main, that people are inherently good and will do the right thing when called upon, and I have ample examples to buttress that belief. I also believe this country is a thresher of souls, an abattoir of feral greed where no low is too low if cash or status is on the line, and I have ample examples of this, as well. Both ideas are true, and are true at the same time, clanging together in my head like kitchen pots in an earthquake. Reconciling them -- hell, even coexisting with them -- has begun to hedge the impossible.

Why? Money. Filthy lucre. The loot.

We live in an age of elaborate cruelty. It is a new experience for some and a terrible old story for others: Fate has teeth these days. You don't just get sick; your tap water gives you cancer from the coal slurry in the river and then the utility company jacks up your rates. You don't just get screwed; you wither like a drought vine because the insurance company won't cover the treatment you need to survive. You don't just die; you get shot in your own algebra class, and before the echo fades, the president of the United States scolds the country about how it all could have been avoided without ever once mentioning guns.

Why? Money. Filthy lucre. The loot.

The tap water made you sick because the local chemical companies that won't let you unionize poisoned the river to maximize profits, because their well-funded friends in Washington obliterated environmental protections to help them wring a few more coppers out of the tired, stinking ground.

The insurance company screwed you because health care in the US is a multibillion-dollar for-profit industry, and healing you dings its bottom line a microfraction of a percent. Some insurance companies don't even bother to look at your medical records before showing you the door.

You got shot in school -- the 29th mass shooting in 45 days of 2018 and the 239th school shooting since the massacre at Sandy Hook -- because the National Rifle Association has its financial fangs buried deep in the necks of virtually every Republican and far too many Democrats in Congress. When Donald Trump failed to mention guns after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, this week, it wasn't an oversight. He was following orders.


It is a call for acts of brutality against fellow citizens that are breathtaking.

The grinding cruelty that is our daily meat and mead was crystallized in a document put forth on Monday by the White House. Trump and his people called it a budget plan, but in reality, it was a $4.4 trillion butcher's bill, a wish list of all the malice and greed at the necrotic heart of the modern Republican experience.

Under normal circumstances, no one takes these documents seriously in any real legislative sense; like the presidential platform, they are declarations of intent filled mostly with DOA intentions. However, these are not normal circumstances, and Trump's budget proposal is a fearsome glimpse into the minds of some genuinely dangerous people. It is a call for acts of brutality against fellow citizens that are breathtaking. A few of them, if inflicted upon a foreign country, might be considered war crimes.

Here, it's just business.

If Trump and his friends ever got their way and this nightmare document became law, Social Security Block Grants would be eliminated. More than $300 billion would be cut from Medicaid. A combined $423 billion would be cut from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Disability programs would be cut by $72 billion. In total, the document details $1.7 trillion in cuts to social services and the safety net.

Funny, that. The gigantic tax cut they just passed cost $1.5 trillion, with most of it going to rich people and massive corporations. Trump's FY2019 budget pays for that in total on the backs of children, poor people, the elderly and the disabled, with a couple hundred billion left over for the Pentagon, which didn't ask for it and doesn't need it.

Something this vicious should come with its own string section.

More than 40 million people depend on SNAP benefits, most of them children. More than 4 million more depend on TANF, most of them children. Trump's solution? A Blue Apron-style "American Harvest Box" containing little to no nutritional value and no choice involved. You don't get to pick what you eat, they tell you what you're eating. According to CNN:

To start, nothing in the box is actually recently harvested -- the proposal includes zero fresh fruits and vegetables and no fresh meat, fish, or poultry. Instead, the "homegrown" food the poor would get in their box would include processed cereals and canned sodium-saturated goods.

And unlike Blue Apron, where consumers get to choose their meals, the Trump plan would simply send poor people a sad box of bland, repetitive basics. Currently, SNAP benefits are loaded onto a card, and recipients can decide for themselves what to purchase. Now, the government would do much of the deciding.

Let's recall here that Michelle Obama couldn't even promote healthier school lunches without right-wing outcry about the nanny state; when Trump literally wants the government to select, box up and deliver food of questionable nutrition for the poor, we hear agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue praising the plan as "a bold, innovative approach."

Elaborate, truly theatrical cruelty: Something this vicious should come with its own string section. Except it's not real, right? They can't possibly pass something like this, can they? Maybe not, but they are sure as hell going to try for some of it at least. They run the entire federal government, and they're beginning to figure that out … and in the end, it's all about the loot.

Thoughts and prayers don't appear to be getting the job done.

People are good, and all this is happening. Two opposing thoughts in all our heads at the same time.

We seem to have lost our ability to function amid all this winning. Thoughts and prayers don't appear to be getting the job done. How bad does it have to get? I don't see the bottom yet, but I see an awful lot of bodies piled up along the way down.

Categories: News

GOP Takes Another Step to Control Federal Courts

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 05:00

 Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)Sen. Charles Grassley leaves the office of Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn on January 23, 2018. (Photo: Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans ended a century-old tradition Thursday that will accelerate the appointment of right-wing federal judges in purple and blue states, where they will preside over thousands of cases that will never reach the Supreme Court.

The move, led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa, was the most egregious partisan intervention in the judiciary since Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked 2016 hearings on President Obama's final Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, which would have given the court a center-left majority. (After the 2016 election, conservative Neil Gorsuch was appointed and confirmed.)

"Michael Brennan gets voted out of Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines despite fact that he refused to acknowledge implicit racial bias in the justice system," tweeted Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under President Obama. "Grassley kills the blue slip tradition with this vote. Brennan voted out over objection of a home-state senator."

"Chuck Grassley's blue slip policy blocked three of Obama's African American circuit noms. But now he's changed his policy to ram through two of Trump's white circuit noms, inc Michael Brennan," tweeted Christopher Kang, who served in the Obama White House Counsel's Office for more than four years and was in charge of its judicial nomination process.

These comments underscored that Republicans under President Trump are packing the federal courts with right-wing nominees, many of whom are not qualified to hold these lifetime posts. The public often underestimates the power of federal judges, especially at the appellate level. While the Supreme Court gets about 7,000 appeals annually and hears between 100-150 cases, federal appeals courts receive upwards of 60,000 appeals annually and are often the final arbiter of justice in America.

What transpired Thursday was both procedural and political. On procedure, the Republican Judiciary Committee chairman overrode an objection by Michael Brennan's home-state senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who didn't return a so-called blue slip, in effect, putting Brennan's nomination on hold.  

"This is a 100-year-old tradition. It's not an official policy. It's not a rule, but it has been a tradition," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, protesting Grassley's decision to override Baldwin and vote on Brennan's nomination, which moved to the Senate on a party-line vote. "Since its inception, no Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee has ever held a hearing for a judicial nominee over the objection of a Republican senator. That's fact and it's history."

But Grassley's decision is also extremely political. Not only does it show that Republicans will dispense with any rule or tradition that stands between them and exerting political power, it also shows that the GOP is eager to foist extremist judges on purple and blue states.

"Today's vote… shows just how far Chuck Grassley is willing to go to cripple the system of checks and balances designed to protect our federal courts and our liberty," said Marge Baker, People for the American Way executive vice president. "His decision to move forward on the Brennan nomination over the objection of a home state senator sends a clear signal that the Trump administration can run roughshod over individual senators when it comes to judicial nominations. Donald Trump and [White House Counsel] Don McGahn have repeatedly nominated unqualified political cronies and narrow-minded elitists to critical seats on the federal bench."

Baker is referring to several Trump nominees whose controversial pasts forced them to withdraw from the process. But Feinstein, in remarks last December, also noted Republicans were ramming nominees through the process to pack the federal courts with unqualified right-wingers.

"The speed at which these judges are being rammed through the process is stunning," she said. "We're already seeing the ramifications. Just yesterday the White House announced that two of its nominees would not be moving forward. One nominee, Brett Talley, had already been voted out of the Judiciary Committee, but we learned of troubling undisclosed information while he was pending on the floor…"

"Republicans refused to advance seven circuit court nominees last year, but now we're speeding through the process to fill those seats with conservative judges," Feinstein said. "Fairness aside, we should all be concerned that we're giving lifetime appointments to potentially unqualified nominees."

How unqualified is Brennan? Consider this exchange between Brennan and Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, in which Brennan dodged Booker's questions about racial bias in the federal justice system.

Sen. Booker: You're aware that African Americans are stopped more than whites for drug searches, that there's no difference between blacks and whites who are using drugs or dealing drugs, but they're 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for it. You're aware of the data, I imagine, that says African Americans are more likely to get mandatory minimum sentences for the same crimes. You're probably aware that African Americans are more likely to serve more time for similar crimes. Do you think explicit racial just exists in the Justice system as you know it?

Michael Brennan: One of the things I can say, Senator, is I want to put my pro bono [volunteer] efforts into --

Sen. Booker: I'm not asking about you specifically, sir. I'm asking do you think racial bias exists in the criminal justice system?

Michael Brennan: I can't be in a position, Senator, under the Canons of Ethics, of taking positions until I would --   

Sen. Booker: Sir, sir. I'm sorry. The data, the evidence, is profound. I've had Republican nominees, Democratic nominees, FBI leaders in hearings I've had, simply point to the fact that in the United States of America, implicit racial bias impacts the criminal justice system. And you have no opinion, whether, on the facts, or no assessment, on whether racial bias exists in the American criminal justice system?

Michael Brennan: I try to put my time and effort into those areas where it's most, where I think it would have an impact. For example, for the Federal Defenders Office in Wisconsin.

Sen. Booker: That's not the question I'm asking, sir. I'm asking, yes or no, do you think racial bias, implicit racial bias, exists in the criminal justice system. Yes or no?

Michael Brennan: I would indicate Senator, absolutely, if I could take a look at all those statistics and studies that you looked at, that I would be able, be in a position to offer an opinion.   

Sen. Booker: And you haven't? You're a judge in the United States of America and you have not looked at issues of race or sentencing in the criminal justice system? 

Grassley cut off Booker from asking further questions.

As the Leadership Conference tweeted a short while later, "The Senate Judiciary Committee, on a party-line vote, just advanced the nomination of Michael Brennan to the 7th Circuit. This marks a dangerous surrender to Trump and represents Chuck Grassley's breathtaking hypocrisy on blue slips."

But more is at stake than Grassley's hypocrisy. The Republicans are engaged in a massive right-wing court-packing scheme that will last for decades -- long after the Senate's current Republican majority is gone. This is one of the Trump administration's most potentially damaging legacies.

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Categories: News

Trump Creates, Then Exacerbates, Crisis for Palestinian Refugees

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 05:00

After Trump's declaration to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Palestinians pulled out of the so-called peace talks. In retaliation, Trump halted more than half of US aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which provides basic humanitarian services to 1.3 million Palestinians. Now the European Parliament is moving in to help the Palestinian refugees.

 Hazem Bader / AFP / Getty Images)Palestinian demonstrators are confronted Israeli soldiers during a demonstration in the West Bank town of Hebron on February 16, 2018. (Photo: Hazem Bader / AFP / Getty Images)

One of the most consequential actions Donald Trump took during the first year of his presidency was to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017. When the Palestinians predictably responded by pulling out of the US-led "peace process," Trump retaliated by cutting US financial support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) by more than 50 percent.

"A Death Sentence" for Gazan Refugees

The US cutback in aid to UNRWA critically threatens the access of Palestinian refugees to food, health care and education.

In Gaza, 1.3 million Palestinian refugees, who comprise 70 percent of Gaza's population, depend on UNRWA for food assistance. The refugee crisis was aggravated by Israel's 2014 massacre in Gaza.

Established by the UN General Assembly in 1949, UNRWA was mandated to provide assistance and protection to roughly 5 million registered Palestinian refugees forced off their land by the 1948 creation of Israel. Palestinians call this event the "Nakba," which is Arabic for catastrophe. This year marks its 70th anniversary.

The United States, UNRWA's largest donor, contributes $125 million annually. But Trump is withholding $65 million from the next scheduled US payment unless the Palestinians participate in peace talks with Israel. On January 2, Trump tweeted, "with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"

But the consequences of withholding these payments are deadly.

"Any reduction of aid would be a death sentence for refugees in Gaza," Ahmed al-Assar, who lives in the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza, told The Washington Post.  

To read more stories like this, visit Human Rights and Global Wrongs.

Husam Zomlot, leader of the Palestinian delegation to the United States, said that "taking away food and education from vulnerable refugees does not bring a lasting and comprehensive peace....  The access of Palestinian refugees and children to basic humanitarian services such as food, health care and education should not be a bargaining chip, but a US and international obligation."

Last week, the European Parliament responded to the impending humanitarian crisis occasioned by Trump's cutback by urging the European Union and its member countries to increase their funding of UNRWA. In its February 8 resolution, the European Parliament warned of "damaging impacts on access to emergency food assistance for 1.7 million Palestine refugees and primary healthcare for 3 million, on access to education for more than 500,000 Palestinian children in 702 UNRWA schools, including almost 50,000 children in Syria, and on stability in the region."

Trump's "Blackmail" of Palestinians

Trump appears unfazed by the disaster his actions have created. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, Trump said he would suspend aid to the Palestinians "unless they sit down and negotiate peace." Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee, called Trump's decision "blackmail."

On February 4, "Western diplomatic sources" unveiled the leaked United States' "peace plan" for Israel/Palestine, dubbed the "deal of the century." The moniker refers to Trump's promise that his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt would work out "the deal of the century" between Israel and the Palestinians.

The plan -- which reflects the wishes of Israel, with no Palestinian approval or even input -- would allow Israel to annex 10 percent of the West Bank area. It would also allocate portions of Ashdod and Haifa for Palestinian use, but Israel would continue to oversee security there. It would grant Palestinians safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli sovereignty, and would give "Israel the upper hand in the demilitarized Palestinian state, which will have its own police force," according to Al-Monitor.

Mazen Abu Zeid, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Refugee Affairs Department, told Al-Monitor, "The deal of the century is a liquidation of the Palestinian cause. Since he took office, Trump's decisions on the Palestinian cause -- recognizing Jerusalem to be the capital [of Israel] and cutting aid, which was the largest package to UNRWA ... are designed to liquidate the Palestinian cause."

Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem concurs. "Refraining from recognizing the Palestinian people's legitimate rights to their land and sacred sites, denying them the right to return and expropriating their sovereignty over the land in exchange for a regional peace and normalization with the Arab world is the right way to liquidate the Palestinian cause," Qassem stated.

Trump Has No Legal Right to Change the Status of Jerusalem

Moreover, Trump's attempt to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel is not legally permissible.

Abu Zeid called the United States "a biased mediator in the peace process" that "has broken all international laws and UN General Assembly resolutions and taken unilateral decisions, such as the deal of the century, which it seeks to levy on us."

Zeid was likely referring to the December 23, 2016, UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which states "that it will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations."

What are the 4 June 1967 lines? From June 5-10, 1967, Israel (with US assistance) invaded Egypt, Jordan and Syria and seized the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.

Later in 1967, the Security Council passed Resolution 242, which enshrined "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and called for "withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." Today, however, Israel continues to occupy the Palestinian territories it acquired in 1967.

The Obama administration abstained from Resolution 2334, allowing it to pass. Since the United States is one of the permanent members of the Security Council, it could have vetoed the resolution. Trump, who had not yet been inaugurated, tried unsuccessfully to stop it from passing.

After Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned his decision. The General Assembly then overwhelmingly expressed "deep regret" over Trump's determination, and declared that the status of Jerusalem "is a final status issue to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant UN resolutions." Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, warned that the United States would be "taking names" of those countries that supported the General Assembly resolution, implying that the US would cut off their foreign aid. More blackmail.

The Right of Return for Palestinian Refugees

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a January 7 cabinet meeting, "UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the problem of the Palestinian refugees," declaring that it "must disappear" because the cause of the Palestinians' right to return to Israel is aimed at the elimination of the State of Israel.

Palestinian refugees have a legal right to return to their lands. In 1948, the General Assembly passed Resolution 194, which established the right of return for Palestinian refugees. It stated, "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible."

The right of refugees to return to their home country is also protected by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

By removing the issue of Jerusalem's status from the peace talks, then trying to remove the issue of Palestinian refugees as well, "Trump was heeding Netanyahu," Zomlot said. Once again, Trump is walking in lockstep with Netanyahu.

Trump's "Glaring Bias" Toward Israel

Trump's decision on Jerusalem is evidence of his administration's "glaring bias" toward Israel, according to Riyad H. Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United States. The US has "undermined its role in any future peace process," Mansour told The New York Times.

On February 12, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure Russia's support in the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians because, Abbas said, the United States "can no longer play a leading role."

But, as Professor Richard Falk, former UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, stated, until the United States lifts the unconditional mandate it gives Israel to repress the Palestinians, "there will be no peace. It's our struggle here to end this destructive policy."

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Categories: News

We Are Drowning In Plastic, and Fracking Companies Are Profiting

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 15:34

Plastic production wreaks havoc on people and the planet -- from fracking wells and pipelines in Pennsylvania, to air pollution from plastic plants in Scotland. Fracking companies are profiting off the recent surge in plastic production and are contributing to a growing climate crisis while generating mountains of plastic garbage. 

 Paolo Margari Candidato M5S Europa)(Photo: Paolo Margari Candidato M5S Europa)

We are choking the planet in plastic. Everything from wasteful water bottles to grocery shopping bags are polluting our waterways, and endangering marine life and the natural environment. It's fair to say that even the most casual news consumer has probably encountered a Facebook post, TV report, or radio segment about the garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean. 

But what's less well-known is what is fueling this plastics binge: fracking. As the Guardian recently reported, in less than a decade, tens of billions of dollars have been invested in creating new manufacturing sites around the world to turn fossil fuels into resin pellets used to manufacture plastic products. The companies profiting off this surge in plastics are contributing to a growing climate crisis while generating mountains of plastic garbage.

One company behind this plastics surge is the UK-based chemical company Ineos. While not a household name like Shell or Exxon, Ineos is at the center of this growing plastics industry -- but the damage caused by the company extends beyond the mounds of discarded waste littering beaches and waterways. The company's 75 manufacturing facilities across 22 countries are responsible for chemical leaks, fires, explosions, and air and climate pollution. This record includes a 2008 chemical fire in Germany and air pollution in Scotland, where the company's Grangemouth facilities were the country's single largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2016.

And the Ineos business model also relies on polluting communities thousands of miles away in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the fracking industry is scarring the landscapepolluting water, and threatening public health. The company uses the liquid gas found in the shale formations there to feed its chemical plants. To meet this demand, the company recently built a fleet of so-called "dragon ships" to carry volatile gas liquids across the Atlantic.

And Ineos wants to continue ramping up. After the first crossing of one of these liquid gas transport ships from the US to the UK, the chairman of Ineos called the event a "gamechanger" that could "spark a shale gas revolution," according to a company news release.

Expanding this business will require new pipelines like the Mariner East 2, now under construction across Pennsylvania. The project belongs to Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline that generated international opposition. There is a movement to stop the Mariner East, too, in places across the state where residents have lost their land to Sunoco through the companies use of eminent domain and are being told that they must allow the pipeline to be built near their schools, homes, and community centers.

Sunoco's safety record was a concern before the drilling started; since 2010, the company has had a higher rate of oil pipeline spills than its competitors. And this record of spills continued once construction of the pipeline began. Dozens of drilling spills and accidents and several cases of tainted water supplies eventually forced the state government to shut down the construction at the beginning of this year. Pennsylvania environmental regulators deemed Sunoco's "egregious and willful violations" of environmental laws serious enough to apply the brakes on a project that had been rushed through the regulatory process by drilling-friendly politicians of both major parties.

On February 8, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection allowed construction of the pipeline to resume, after issuing a $12.6 million civil penalty against Sunoco.

While plastic junk floating in the oceans gets the headlines, the truth is that the entire business model wreaks havoc on communities and the planet -- from the fracking wells in Pennsylvania and the pipelines that carry the materials in the US, to the air pollution from petrochemical plants producing plastics in the UK.

Pennsylvania was right to hit the pause button on this fracking-for-plastics pipeline, but if we're to create a stable climate and a healthy planet for all, we need state legislators to stop construction altogether. And we need political leaders in Europe willing to stop fracking before it starts.

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Categories: News

The GOP's New Parental Leave Plan Fails Families

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 14:55
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It has been just a few weeks since the GOP pushed through a massive tax code revamp that gave the wealthy and big businesses millions of dollars in savings per year. Now, the party claims it will tackle paid parental leave -- a key pet policy issue of first daughter Ivanka Trump and an initiative that Republicans hope to embrace in order to improve their support among women.

If this is their plan, however, it probably isn't going to help.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has now announced a tentative blueprint for finally bringing paid parental leave to the table, in a form that he believes the GOP can embrace. The catch? It can't be a burden on businesses, and Republicans don't believe in federal funding for social programs  -- unless it's  welfare for the rich.


Instead, Rubio and Ivanka Trump expect parents to take the money out of their Social Security fund -- and promise to work longer in order to pay it back. Politico reports:

For instance, a person who would begin receiving full benefits when he or she turns 67 years old but wants to take six weeks of paid leave wouldn't draw Social Security benefits until six weeks after his or her 67th birthday. "That's a new idea for Republicans who still identify it as something that comes out of the left," Rubio said of paid family leave. "Forcing companies to provide it is perhaps an idea that finds its genesis on the left, but the notion that pregnancy should not be a bankruptcy-eliciting event is one that I think all Americans should be supportive of."

There are a number of "what if" scenarios that remain unclear in this plan, already suggesting that this is a horrible idea. The first is the concept of making anyone work longer before retirement – an issue that many believe is already creating a jobs and earnings crisis. After all, as baby boomers work further into their retirement years, that leaves fewer openings for college graduates and lower pay for everyone.

Then there is the obvious issue with how the plan would affect the solvency of Social Security as a whole. Linda Benesch, spokesperson for Social Security Works told ThinkProgress:

This seems like something [Republicans] are doing to get good headlines. What this really is is a cut to Social Security/ The proposal that Rubio and Ivanka are reportedly considering involves an increase in the retirement age of people who choose to take leave. An increase in the retirement age is always a benefit cut. Either people are getting benefits for a shorter amount of time or if they choose to claim later their bonus for deferring benefits will be smaller.

Plus, as Elizabeth Bruenig explains in the Washington Post, the plan incentivizes having less children -- since the more children you have, the longer you will need to work in order to ever collect Social Security as a retiree:

The proposal would penalize bigger families more than smaller ones; couples with more children would face working further into old age before receiving retirement benefits. Moreover, it would likely mean that lower-wage workers would end up putting off retirement longer than wealthier workers with ample company benefits, an especially perverse outcome given that America's poor suffer significantly reduced life expectancies compared with the country's rich. If you're not particularly well-to-do and you want a family, in other words, you'll need to be prepared to pay for it in your old age: your family, your choice, your problem.

Paid parental leave is a racial, gender and class justice issue -- and one that the government must step up to address with real answers, not budgetary tricks. In an analysis of 41 major developed countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only the United States lacked any form of paid leave -- whereas other countries ranged anywhere from eight to 87 weeks.

Forcing parents to work longer to gain even a limited amount of time at home with their children flies in the face of all that Republicans claim to value. If there are enough government funds for extreme tax cuts, there's enough money to offer a real paid parental leave package.

Categories: News

Yes, Replacing Food Stamps With a Blue Apron-Style Delivery System Is as Bad as It Sounds

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 14:35

This article was published by

This week, the Trump administration released its fiscal year 2019 budget. For the most part, it's similar to last year's proposal: massive cuts to safety net programs, a big boost in military spending, and very Trump-ed up estimates of economic growth. But this year, tucked into the Department of Agriculture (USDA) subsection, the administration laid out a proposal to take away a chunk of the nutrition assistance many families rely on and replace it with a massive new food delivery program.

Under the proposal, households receiving $90 or more per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits -- which accounts for the vast majority of all of the households who currently participate in SNAP -- will receive a portion of their assistance in the form of a box of pre-selected food. According to the USDA, which would be responsible for administering the program, the box would be filled with items like pastas, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruit, intended to "improve the nutritional value of the benefit provided and reduce the potential for EBT fraud."

In effect, the proposal is a paternalistic spin on Blue Apron: Instead of being able to choose food based on their nutritional and family needs, SNAP households may get standardized boxes of food that the government chooses on their behalf. Hunger and nutrition experts have panned this as "costly, inefficient, stigmatizing, and prone to failure." A 2016 USDA study found no evidence to suggest that households who receive food stamps need the government to select their food for them -- their spending habits are almost identical to other households. (The only exception is baby food -- SNAP households buy a lot more of it, because they're twice as likely to have a child under age 3.) Replacing the food that people are buying for themselves with pastas and canned fruit is likely a nutritional downgrade. And, since the food is being delivered directly to families, it's unclear whether families will get the opportunity to provide input based on allergies or specific nutritional needs -- say, to account for a peanut allergy, or for all that baby food.

As for reducing EBT fraud, the Trump Administration is offering a complicated solution for a nonexistent problem: SNAP fraud is extremely rare, and the government spends about as much money looking for SNAP fraud as it actually finds in misused funds. (As a point of comparison, the Pentagon loses enough money every year to fund the entire SNAP program twice.)

The government spends as much money looking for SNAP fraud as it actually finds in misused funds

What's more likely is that the proposal will become a giveaway to major agriculture companies. Creating this type of program will require a massive number of new government contracts for food, shipping, storage, and delivery. These contracts will have volume requirements that smaller farms will not be able to meet, but they'll open the door wide to America's "Big Aglobbyists -- including those with close ties to Trump's Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

And given that this proposal is paired with a $214 billion cut over the coming decade -- nearly one-third of total SNAP spending -- as well as punishing time limits for workers who cannot find a job or get enough hours at work, it's hard to believe this proposal is anything but malicious.

Considering Trump's past statements on food stamps -- and on poverty in general -- it's likely that malice actually is at the core of this. Remember the time that he said the only reason a protestor could be angry that he was talking about food stamps was because the protestor was fat? Or the time he said he "just doesn't want a poor person" involved in decisions about the economy? The president sees his own wealth as the chief validator of his societal worth, and believes it makes him perfectly qualified to make choices about how low-income people live their lives. This SNAP proposal is the result of that line of thinking. It strips people of control over one of their most basic decisions -- what they're going to eat -- and hands it over to a government agency. It flattens out the shades of humanity that go into our food -- the garlic or chilis or cumin or fish sauce we use when we need to make dinner feel more like home, or the choice to splurge on a steak for your wife's birthday dinner even if it means you'll be scraping by for the rest of the month -- and it replaces them with cans of fruit in a cardboard box.

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Categories: News

Department of Education Will No Longer Protect Trans Students Denied Bathroom Access

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 05:00

The Department of Education has announced that it no longer intends to pursue civil rights complaints filed by transgender students who are denied access to appropriate restrooms.

The agency, headed by Trump appointee Betsy DeVos, argues that gender identity is not covered by Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education facilities that receive public funding. But this interpretation runs contrary to the beliefs of many trans people, as well as legal scholars and several courts.

And this isn't the first time that the Department of Education has denied trans people of all ages their full civil rights, and compromise their ability to participate freely in society. Such efforts are particularly worrisome to a generation of trans kids who grew up during the Obama administration, when progress on their rights was moving forward.

The fixation on trans people and bathrooms is, quite frankly, puzzling to most of us -- really, all we want to do is pee. But since the issue keeps coming up in the form of bathroom bills and cases like this one, it's worth taking a closer look.

When trans men and women transition, they usually want to use the accommodations that align with their gender -- whether those be specifically gendered restrooms or all-gender facilities -- for a variety of reasons, ranging from personal safety to inclusion.

Some people seem convinced that allowing trans people to use the bathroom is "dangerous," and they use harmful rhetoric to suggest that women's bathrooms are particularly vulnerable to "men in dresses" who lurk within and prey on cis women and children. This couldn't be further from the truth: Trans women are women, not men in dresses, and rapists and child molesters aren't stopped by a sign that says "cis women only."

But we do know that trans people are at very high risk of being harassed -- and sometimes assaulted -- in bathrooms. Nine percent of respondents to a Williams Institute survey in 2013 said they had been assaulted in the bathroom, and most had been harassed. Making a big production out of who is using a restroom can make it much more dangerous. Some trans people opt to avoid public restrooms -- partially or totally -- because they feel unsafe.

If you've ever held it through the end of a movie or because your plane is about to land, you know how uncomfortable it is to need to use the restroom and not be able to. Now imagine being a 16-year-old kid who needs to pee in first period, but can't, because there's no accessible restroom. Should you try to hold it all day? Go home early?

A number of survey respondents reported health problems, including bladder and kidney infections, caused by trying to avoid the bathroom. Others deliberately withheld fluids, which can be very dangerous. Six percent had visited doctors with problems caused by restroom avoidance.

Trans people deserve to be able to use the bathroom like anyone else. If schools have problems with assault or harassment in restrooms, they need to address a culture problem -- one that doesn't lie with trans students. Most reasonable users of public restrooms want to get in, do their business and get out. They're not peeping under stall doors or grabbing people's genitals.

The Department of Education has just advised trans students that their safety isn't important, opening up the door to further harassment. The change in policy has also signaled to the trans community at large that the entities charged with protecting us will no longer come to our defense.

Categories: News

Florida Shooter Had Record of Death Threats, Violence Against Women, Racist Statements

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 05:00

Seventeen people were killed and at least 15 other people were wounded Wednesday at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida, in one of the deadliest school shootings in US history. More evidence has emerged showing that the gunman, a 19-year-old former student named Nikolas Cruz, shared a common trait with many other men who have carried out mass shootings: He had a record of abusing and threatening women. On Thursday, a white nationalist hate group called the Republic of Florida Militia also claimed the gunman was a member who had trained with the militia, but the group's leader later walked back the claim. Former classmates of Cruz did describe him as politically extreme and espousing racist beliefs. For more, we speak with George Ciccariello-Maher, a visiting scholar at the Hemispheric Institute at New York University and the author of "Decolonizing Dialectics," and Trevor Aaronson, executive director and co-founder of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributing writer to The Intercept.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa's New President, Known for Moving Profits to Offshore Tax Havens

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 05:00

African National Congress leader Cyril Ramaphosa has been confirmed as the new president of South Africa, after the former leader, Jacob Zuma, resigned from office abruptly on Wednesday night amid a series of corruption scandals. Ramaphosa once led the National Union of Mineworkers under apartheid in the 1980s. He later built a business empire that encompassed mining interests -- including the Marikana platinum mine, where police killed 34 workers during a strike in 2012. Ramaphosa is now one of Africa's wealthiest men, with a net worth of about $450 million. Now, activists are talking about Ramaphosa's ties to tax havens during his time in the corporate sector. We go to Johannesburg to speak with activist Koketso Moeti, founder of the community advocacy organization Her recent piece for News24 is headlined "The rich can't steal, right?"

Please check back later for full transcript.


Categories: News

Beholder in Chief

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 05:00
Categories: News

Economic Update: Capitalism's Excuse: Blame the Government

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 05:00

This week's episode discusses how the fishing industry is self-destructing, how malls mirror US capitalism, how the UK is renationalizing, the upcoming spikes in interest rates, and how tax cuts hurt the public. The show also includes an interview with lifelong unionist Charles Fabian on the decline and potential of the US labor movement.

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Categories: News

Who's in Charge of the Classified Intelligence About Trump? Trump. It's a Problem

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 05:00


How is it possible that the subject of an investigation gets to look at the evidence against him and decide whether or not it sees the light of day? There's no appeal of President Trump's decision in a case like that.

 Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images) Donald Trump addresses the nation after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in Washington, USA on February 15, 2018. (Photo: Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

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Ever since the House Intelligence Committee voted to release Rep. Devin Nunes' now-legendary "memo," and then sent it up to the White House for presidential permission to declassify it, I've been wondering: How is it possible that the subject of an investigation gets to look at the evidence against him and decide whether or not it sees the light of day? There's no appeal of President Trump's decision in a case like that. He has the ultimate and unquestioned power to do it. Is there any other situation in our society where this could happen?

There's been surprisingly little discussion of this bizarre circumstance. It came up briefly during this week's annual assessment of global threats before the Senate Intelligence Committee, when Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., quizzed FBI Director Christopher Wray on the subject:

According to the White House statement, the president was the one that authorized the memo’s declassification. Do you believe there’s an actual, or at least appearance, of a conflict of interest when the president is put in charge of declassifying information that could complicate an ongoing investigation into his own campaign?

Wray demurred from offering an opinion on that, merely stating that it was within the president's authority to decide on declassification. Harris pressed further, asking if he would hand over sensitive information on the Russia investigation if the president asked. Wray replied, "I'm not going to discuss the investigation in question with the president, much less provide information from that investigation to him." That's pretty unequivocal. 

Then Harris got the real issue into the discussion by asking whether the president had the right to declassify information if he received it from a member of the Congress. She wondered whether the president should recuse himself from making decisions regarding his own case. Wray declined to answer, saying the president would have to review all these questions with the White House counsel.

Anyone who's following this story closely knows exactly what Harris was getting at. From the moment the House Intelligence Committee decided to investigate foreign interference in the 2016 election, Nunes -- who was a member of the Trump transition himself -- has been coordinating with the White House. He was caught red-handed last summer, making an utter fool of himself by holding a press conference in which he pretended to be delivering recently discovered information to the president, which was later revealed to have been provided to him by the White House in a midnight caper worthy of Inspector Clouseau.

Nunes then claimed to "recuse" himself from the probe, but although Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, is now supposed to be in charge, Nunes remains involved up to his eyeballs, often working in secret and without consultation with the committee. It's extremely likely that he's still coordinating with the White House and sharing information about the case.

That is, unfortunately, not illegal. As Wray told the committee, the president has the right to classify and declassify any information the government produces and there's nothing that says members of Congress cannot provide him with whatever sensitive evidence they turn up that implicates him. Nobody ever expected members of a congressional oversight committee, even those of the president's party, to be so servile that they would willingly give up their own prerogatives in order to protect a president suspected of conspiring with a foreign government.

Trump was advised by White House counsel Don McGahn at the beginning of his term that the president "cannot have a conflict of interest," which he has repeated on a loop whenever he's asked about his myriad financial and business conflicts. Perhaps Trump believes he similarly "cannot have a conflict of interest" in terms of his legal exposure in the Russia investigation. McGahn should know better. This is the sort of assumption that got Nixon into trouble.

Natasha Bertrand at the Atlantic spoke with several experts on this subject, all of whom were troubled by the unprecedented situation. On the question of whether or not Trump should recuse himself from making decisions about classified documents pertaining to the investigation, some said he absolutely should, while others pointed to difficulties regarding the president's duties as commander in chief. David Kris, a FISA expert who served as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division, told Bertrand that Trump should be careful:

Nixon showed us that level of intimacy between politics and law enforcement with his infamous "enemies list," which outlined ways to "use the available federal machinery," like IRS audits, "to screw our political enemies." Since then, every presidential administration, from Carter to Trump, has adopted policies limiting interactions between the White House and the Justice Department to protect the independence of prosecutorial decisions.

Trump doesn't understand that and he never will. As recently as last month he was telling the press that he likes to "fight back" and they "call it obstruction" -- pretty much admitting that he has tried to obstruct justice. He is the last person on earth who would recuse himself from an investigation into his own conduct. He would consider that to be just plain stupid. If he can declassify sensitive information that makes him look good and keep secret that which could incriminate him, he'll do it without a second thought. He will push the boundaries as far as possible and they are very far indeed.

But the problem goes far beyond Donald Trump. The classification system in the Unites States is a mess. It's been more than 20 years since the Moynihan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, chaired by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was released, showing that over-classification actually harms national security by making it more difficult to accurately assess threats and share information. The Brennan Center offered an updated study showing the same thing in 2011.

If we manage to get through the Trump years in one piece, perhaps one of the salutary effects of his blatant abuse of power will finally be a serious attempt to revise these rules. This is no way to run a modern democracy. Look where it's gotten us.

Categories: News

Disability Activists Crash Congress to Stop a Bill That Would Undermine Their Civil Rights

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 05:00

The civil rights of disabled people came under attack Thursday as Congress made it more difficult to sue businesses that are inaccessible to people with disabilities as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Although dozens of activists showed up to loudly voice their protest, the House passed HR 620, weakening the 28-year-old law. Now activists are vowing to take their fight to the Senate.

 Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)Harriotte Ranvig, 71, of Somerville Mass., is escorted out of the House chamber on February 15, 2018, after she and a group of protesters disrupted the vote on The ADA Education and Reform Act on which makes it harder for disabled people to sue for discrimination. The aim of the legislation is to curb dishonest lawsuits. (Photo: Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

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Anita Cameron remembers the Capitol Crawl like it was yesterday. It was the spring of 1990, and Congress was dragging its feet toward a vote on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark piece of legislation protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities. To call attention to the bill and the accessibility challenges that people with disabilities face on a daily basis, Cameron and dozens of other activists left their wheelchairs and walkers at the steps of the Capitol building and crawled their way to the top before filling the rotunda with their chanting voices.

Cameron and more than 100 others were arrested that day. The protest had an impact: President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law a couple of months later.

However, the ADA has not been a magic bullet and is now under threat. Cameron, a Black feminist and LGBTQ activist, was back on Capitol Hill this week protesting a bill in the House that advocates say would gut the ADA in favor of businesses that have failed to accommodate people with disabilities.

As the House members voted 225-192 to pass the bill on Thursday, dozens of activists made their way into the chambers and could be heard chanting as surprised lawmakers turned to look over their shoulders. Cameron was arrested again along with 16 other people, marking her 134th arrest as a disability activist, according to organizers on the ground. The bill, known as HR 620, would make it more difficult to file lawsuits under the ADA against public accommodations like restaurants and stores that are not accessible to people with disabilities.

"You're not going to get your rights because some politicians thought it would be a good thing, and you've got to fight to keep them," Cameron told Truthout in an interview. "So, here it is, almost 28 years later and the ADA is in danger of being gutted ... once again the onus falls on us."

Earlier this week, Cameron was arrested with nine other activists from the direct-action wing of the disability movement as HR 620 moved out of committee. Videos posted on social media show police dragging activists across the floor and carrying one away in a wheelchair.

House Republicans generally supported the bill, and votes from a handful of Democrats secured its passage, to the dismay of progressive activists. Proponents backed by retail lobbyists argue the legislation is needed to stop frivolous lawsuits against businesses such as hotels, stores and restaurants with architectural barriers that make their facilities difficult for people with disabilities to access. The bill would require people with disabilities to give advance notice before filing a lawsuit under the ADA, and give businesses up to six months to outline a plan for removing the barrier and make "substantial progress" toward doing so, although what exactly constitutes "substantial progress" is unclear.

"So, this is basically saying to disabled people, 'You can wait indefinitely for your rights to be honored,'" said Gregg Beratan, an activist with the grassroots disability rights group ADAPT and manager of government affairs at the Center for Disability Rights, in an interview with Truthout. "We are approaching the 28th anniversary of the ADA and they still want us to beg for our rights. It's appalling."

The legislation would saddle people with disabilities with "additional time-consuming and exhausting" red tape when asserting their rights and deal a "devastating blow" to the ADA, according to ADAPT. The ADA allows people with disabilities to sue public businesses if they fail to make their facilities accessible to people in wheelchairs, for example. Such lawsuits are permitted to force compliance with the ADA and pay for legal fees, but not to demand monetary damages.

These types of lawsuits -- along with plenty of voluntary efforts made by forward-thinking institutions and business -- have been instrumental in expanding equal access to public life for people with disabilities since 1990. HR 620 would make it more difficult to file lawsuits and remove incentives for voluntary compliance, according to the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

Cameron said she uses wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility devices to get around, and today, she can go to nearly any city in the country and use public transportation similarly to people without disabilities, thanks to the ADA. She argues that businesses have had almost 28 years to come into compliance with the law, and there is no reason to give those that haven't extra time to do so now.

"I can get on a lift, and people generally don't stare anymore.... I can get on a bus and go wherever I want to go," Cameron said. "I can go to the movies, I can go to restaurants, I can go into banks, I can go places that everyone else can go.... This is why it is really distressing and disturbing that you have some of these places that are not accessible, and if [HR 620] passes, then they will have that much longer to remain inaccessible."

Beratan, who was arrested along with Cameron at the initial protest in Congress this week, said there has been a problem with frivolous lawsuits filed under the ADA, but only by a small number of lawyers operating in just a few states. He said that if lawmakers really wanted to fix the problem, they would write legislation that targets those attorneys, not the ADA and people with disabilities.

The House rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Jim Langevin (D-Rhode Island) that would have removed the most controversial elements of the bill. Langevin, who was paralyzed by a gunshot while helping police teach gun safety to Boy Scouts, is the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress. Now that the bill has passed the House, disability rights activists will turn their attention to the Senate, where Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who lost her legs to a rocket-propelled grenade attack while flying an Army National Guard helicopter in Iraq, is rallying lawmakers against the bill.

Cameron said the legislation fits into a larger pattern that the disability movement is all too familiar with. When people with disabilities are unable to access public spaces and resources like everyone else, the onus falls back on them to challenge whatever business or institution is responsible for making a change. When politicians attack and undermine hard-fought civil rights, it's up to the disability movement to raise public awareness and organize in protest.

"To me, if [HR 620] passes and they get away with that, then what other parts of the ADA are they going to come for?" Cameron said. "They are not going to stop. It seems that this administration is taking away the hard-earned rights for people with disabilities that we fought for."

Cameron said it's important to remember that disability rights are civil rights, and activists are demanding equal rights, not "special" rights for certain people.

Businesses should make their facilities accessible because it's the right thing to do, but that's not the only incentive. One in three households in the United States has a member with a disability, and together they represent $1 billion in spending power, according to the commercial analytics firm Neilson. Every shopper has their own needs that drive spending habits, and people with disabilities tend to spend more on common retail items than non-disabled consumers.

"You really don't want our money?" Cameron asked.

Categories: News

In 35 States, Cops Can Legally Have Sex With Someone in Custody

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 14:17
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It should go without saying that a person in police custody is not in a position to consent to sex -- but apparently, it needs to be reiterated.

A Care2 petition is drawing attention to the fact that 35 states do not have laws on the books prohibiting police officers from engaging in sexual activity with people in custody. If this issue sounds like a massive legal loophole -- and a nightmare waiting to happen -- you're not alone in your thinking.

recent report at Buzzfeed highlighted the issue for many members of the public who weren't aware of this reality. When a teenager named Anna was brought into custody and raped repeatedly, she bravely reported the crime, and the officers involved were identified.

To her horror and fury, though, the officers argued that it had been a consensual encounter -- and an act that did not, in fact, go against the law. Having sex on shift is viewed as a "misconduct" issue, not a fundamental violation.

In the #MeToo era, we're having many long-overdue and difficult conversations about sexual autonomy and consent. Our view of what consent looks like has also evolved radically in recent years -- many people are looking to a model of affirmative or enthusiastic consent, for example. Some argue that in situations of extreme power imbalances, like teacher/student, boss/employee or doctor/patient, it isn't possible for people to have truly consensual sex, because the stakes for refusing can be very high for the person in a subordinate position.

That's certainly true of interactions with law enforcement. A pattern of systemic refusal to hold police officers accountable for crimes is a national issue. And a person under arrest may feel powerless to refuse police officers, both physically and emotionally. For example, a detainee might be threatened with more charges, or told she can leave if she cooperates. When a person with a gun and a badge issues orders to someone in a vulnerable position, refusal could even come with fatal costs.

The fact that so many states haven't closed such an obvious loophole in the law is troubling -- but, like Anna, many people assume that it can't possibly be legal for police officers to have sex with detainees, or while on duty, because it seems like such an obvious civil rights violation. Many may not be aware that their states have no actual laws in place to protect them, and passing laws that put checks on police power can be challenging with police unions ready to step up in defense of the law enforcement community.

There's good news, though: Now you know this is an issue. You can check out Buzzfeed's map to see if your state is one of those that protects the rights of arrestees. If it's not, you can contact your elected officials to ask that they take action on this issue; bad behavior often goes unchecked because people think nobody's paying attention, and putting pressure on the people you voted for can lead to meaningful policy changes.

Categories: News

Fourteen Environmental Programs Eliminated in Trump's Budget Proposal

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 14:16
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President Trump released his proposed federal budget for 2019 on Monday, and in the process pushed for the complete elimination of more than a dozen key environmental programs. These include, but are not limited to, areas of the government focusing on climate change, public lands and energy efficiency.

Of course, these fully eliminated programs are just the tip of the iceberg. Trump's proposal also drastically slashes the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies critical to a sustainable future.

The impact of proposed budget cuts on the EPA and other agencies, if passed, will be dramatic, but many operations will probably manage to limp on. That may not be so with the 14 programs Trump has proposed eliminating altogether:

  • The Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program ($305 million), which supports the development of sustainable energy. Trump's proposal to eliminate this program comes just a few weeks before ARPA-E's 2018 Energy Innovation Summit and on the very day that proposals were due for its latest round of funding.

  • The Global Climate Change Initiative, a joint operation of the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development ($160 million). The budget proposal says this is "consistent with the President's plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change."

  • The popular and effective Energy Star Program ($66 million), which has helped to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by at least 8 million metric tons. The Trump budget says this is not part of the EPA's core mission (even though the program is actually co-managed by the Department of Energy) and "can be implemented by the private sector."

  • The Environmental Protection Agency's categorical grants ($1.066 billion), which provides states with "funds to implement the various water, air, waste, pesticides and toxic substances programs."

  • The Department of Agriculture's little-known but effective Rural Business and Cooperative Service ($103 million). Among the service's programs are tools to help rural residents and businesses develop sustainable renewable-energy systems. As the service's administrator told me in 2016, their Rural Energy for America grant program had helped to finance and install so many renewable energy systems it was "the equivalent to removing more than a million cars from the road annually."

  • The Economic Development Administration ($266 million). The program provides federal grants for local economic growth. One of the administration's most recent grants was $2.1 million to help provide sustainable water for businesses in Michigan.

  • The US Forest Service's budget for land acquisition ($56 million). The budget points out that the Forest Service already owns about 30 percent of federally owned public lands and blames the cuts on the need to maintain the land we already own.

  • Many grant and education programs offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including Sea Grant; the National Estuarine Research Reserve System; Coastal Zone Management Grants; the Office of Education; and the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund ($273 million).

  • The Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps low-income families increase the energy efficiency of their homes. The program supports 8,500 jobs. Trump's budget also wipes out the State Energy Program, which provides funding and technical assistance for projects to reduce energy waste. (No budget proposal attached dollar value to either of these programs.)

  • The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program ($3.39 billion). The budget request blames this on "fraud and abuse," not the high cost of heating fuel.

  • The Abandoned Mine Land Grants program ($105 million), which helps clean and redevelop former coal mines -- a program paid for by coal-mine operators.

  • The Heritage Partnership Program ($20 million), which commemorates, conserves and promotes "areas that include important natural, scenic, historic, cultural, and recreational resources."

  • The Chemical Safety Board ($11 million), which investigates accidents at chemical facilities and has pushed for greater regulation of the chemical industry.

On top of all of this, the budget also seeks to eliminate numerous programs for education, literacy and the arts -- all of which have clear connections to improving the public's understanding of environmental issues.

Of course, so far this is just all just proposed. The budget still has a long way to go before anything's official, and many of these programs and agencies could survive to fight another day, but what we're seeing this week clearly encapsulates the administration's priorities.

Categories: News

Kept Out: Banks Across US Caught Systematically Rejecting People of Color for Home Loans

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 05:00

A shocking new investigation by Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting has uncovered evidence that African Americans and Latinos are continuing to be routinely denied conventional mortgage loans at rates far higher than their white counterparts across the country. Reveal based its report on a review of 31 million mortgage records filed with the federal government in 2015 and 2016. The Reveal investigation found the redlining occurring across the country, including in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis and San Antonio. We speak to Aaron Glantz, senior reporter at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, and Rachelle Faroul, a 33-year-old African-American woman who was rejected twice by lenders when she tried to buy a brick row house in Philadelphia, where Reveal found African Americans were 2.7 times as likely as whites to be denied a conventional mortgage.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

The Terrorist Violence That Trump Ignores

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 05:00
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America's far right is on a killing spree -- but to judge from the actions of the Trump administration, the White House is too busy trying to score political points about the supposed threat of "Islamic terrorists" to care.

A report released this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) tallies more than 100 people killed or injured over the past several years by perpetrators who were clearly influenced by the alt-right.

The SPLC counts Elliot Rodger as the start of the trend of alt-right killers. Rodger, a 22-year-old who took the lives of seven people in a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, had documented his misogyny and racist hate in his online writings.

The best-known recent example was the killing in August of activist Heather Heyer by white supremacist James Alex Fields, who drove his car into a crowd of anti-racists in Charlottesville, Virginia, as they marched in opposition to the far right. Heyer was killed and dozens injured in a horrific act that many on the far right subsequently celebrated.

Heyer had initially been reluctant to travel to Charlottesville because of the potential danger -- but decided that she could not let the alt-right's hate go unopposed. At her funeral, Heyer's mother Susan Bro quoted from one of her social media posts: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

"They tried to kill my child to shut her up," she added. "Well, guess what -- you just magnified her."

Heyer's death is far from an isolated incident.

The SPLC notes that 2017 was the "most violent year" for the alt-right, with nine alleged perpetrators killing 17 people and injuring 43 more. Overall, according to the report, since Elliot Rodger's rampage, "there have been at least 13 alt-right related fatal episodes, leaving 43 dead and more than 60 injured."

The perpetrators were all male and, with two exceptions, under the age of 30.

Noting that several of today's prominent alt-right figureheads, including Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, came to prominence in online communities that are a toxic stew of racism and sexism, the SPLC report makes the case that the resentments and hopelessness among this audience are being exploited.

Not only the Trump administration but the whole political establishment contributes to this dynamic with policies and rhetoric that scapegoat or smear women, Blacks, Muslims and others. This mainstream political climate is then amplified by the far right, as the SPLC points out:

[T]he dark engine of the movement is reactionary white male resentment...For a recruit, the alt-right helps explain why they don't have the jobs or the sexual partners or the overall societal and cultural respect that they believe (and are told) to be rightfully theirs. This appeal is resonating at a moment in the United States when economic inequality is worsening and a majority-minority United States is forecasted for 2044 -- developments exploited by racist propagandists.


Most of those profiled in the SPLC report incubated their hate online, in various right-wing internet forums that attract a wide variety of racists and bigots. But the SPLC notes that in five cases, the alleged perpetrators had specific connections to "Atomwaffen Division" -- a group that openly embraces a neo-Nazi paramilitary ideology.

Different sources vary as to how many actual members the group has across the US -- one ProPublica report suggested the number was as high as 80 members while others placed the figure at a few dozen or less. It has apparently been recruiting and growing since the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville where Heyer was murdered.

The racist and anti-Semitic group celebrates Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson, and fetishizes the idea of a breakdown of society and a race war, among other toxic aims. Some of the group's writings encourage members to join the Armed Forces to get weapons and combat training, Keegan Hankes, an analyst at the SPLC, told the New York Times.

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the group has been implicated in "alleged plots to attack civilians, nuclear facilities and synagogues."

Among those with a connection to the group or its literature is Nicholas Giampa, a Virginia teenager who is alleged to have killed Scott Fricker and Buckley Kuhn-Fricker, his girlfriend's parents, in December after they discovered his racist social media postings and made their daughter end her relationship with him.

A former Atomwaffen member told ProPublica "that the teen was more than a fan: He was in direct communication with the group."

Another reported adherent of Atomwaffen Division is Samuel Woodward, a 20-year-old California man accused of the recent stabbing death of 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, who was both Jewish and gay.

As Jonathan Goldblatt, the CEO and national director of the ADL, wrote in Newsweekin early February: "This is all happening at a moment when white supremacist groups are attempting to gain a foothold in mainstream society via coordinated efforts on college campuses, in the media and at the ballot box."


One message from the SPLC report especially deserves to be underlined. "Today, the audience available to alt-right propaganda remains 'phenomenally larger' than that available to ISIS-type recruiters," the report said, citing research from a group that counters online radicalization.

US law enforcement agencies have said the same thing. Last May, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI reported in an intelligence bulletin that far-right racist groups had carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years -- and were likely to carry out more attacks over the coming year, a prediction that was borne out.

If more than 100 people across the US had been killed or injured in multiple attacks by people with ties to reactionary Islamic groups -- or if such groups were heavily recruiting on college campuses and distributing flyers calling for violence -- you can bet the Trump administration would be promising action, and the FBI and every other law enforcement agency in the US would be making numerous arrests.

Nothing of the sort has happened to the far right, though.

At the top of the federal government, the Trump administration continues to largely ignore the increased threat posed by the far right -- except when it's encouraging such groups, implicitly or explicitly, as when Trump himself talked about the "good people" among the white supremacists and Nazis who turned out in Charlottesville.

On the contrary, soon after Trump took office, the new administration considered renaming and changing the focus of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, an Obama-era initiative that channeled grants and other resources to community groups and law enforcement efforts to identify and divert those deemed at risk of committing terrorist acts.

The effectiveness and politics of the program have always been suspect, as Emma Green noted last year in The Atlantic. Among other things, from its inception, the program raised civil liberties concerns that it was being primarily used by law enforcement to target Muslims, whether there was any evidence of "extremism" or not.

Even before the current upsurge identified by the SPLC, far-right violence claimed more victims than that connected to reactionary Islamist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. So you would think that right-wing terrorism would be the major concern of the program.

But after taking office, the Trump administration changed the focus of the CVE program to make it even more explicit that the main goal was to monitor and profile Muslims.

The administration rescinded funding for Life After Hate, an organization dedicated to rehabilitating former neo-Nazis, as well as a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill program that aimed to counter propaganda from multiple sources, including the far right. To top it off, the White House proposed renaming the program "Countering Islamic Extremism."

The name change never materialized, but it's abundantly clear that the Trump administration continues to define terrorism as solely a "Muslim" phenomenon. It doesn't care about the threat of far-right violence.

The administration's Islamophobia serves a political purpose, bolstering the case for continued war abroad and anti-Muslim repression at home. Meanwhile, the toxic collection of racists, sexists and neo-Nazis emboldened by Trump's attacks will continue to pose a threat -- which is why we need to organize and mobilize at every opportunity to stop them.

Categories: News

Another School Shooting, and the Political Script Repeats

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 05:00

Yesterday's school shooting provoked yet another round of rote responses from both conservatives and liberals alike that we know from experience will go nowhere. Until we acknowledge that we are a society that both glorifies and saturates itself with violence, we will never be able to address gun violence in a transformative manner.

 Mark Wilson / Getty Images)Kristi Gilroy hugs a young woman at a police checkpoint near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a mass shooter on February 15, 2018, in Parkland, Florida. (Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

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On Wednesday, the United States saw its eighteenth school shooting of 2018. A student who had previously been expelled from Stoneman Douglas High School entered the school and opened fire with an AR-15, killing 17 students. As of this writing, 14 others were hospitalized. As tragedies like this one, and the canned responses that follow, become a standardized part of our culture, it is reassuring to see people pushing back against the normalization of such violence. After all, 1,300 children are killed by guns each year in the United States. Fifty-three percent of those deaths are homicides, and the remaining 38 percent are suicides, and for the most part, that violence is neglected or outright ignored by the media.

When our culture of violence is acknowledged, liberals and conservatives alike repeat their usual refrains about prayer, mental illness and gun laws. And nothing changes.

While it's disheartening that we have allowed the victims of less spectacular acts of gun violence to be invisibilized, I find some hope in the fact that people still find some acts violence unthinkable. Amid all the harm that occurs in the United States, and the wars we barely notice any longer, our capacity for shock matters, even if it is not as constant as it ought to be. We have become inured to the ubiquity of gun violence, and in so doing, we have normalized it. There are a lot of factors in play with regard to such matters -- including racial bias and social indifference toward crimes against the marginalized -- but a major factor is constancy. When a horror that shocks the imagination becomes a regular occurrence, the human mind adapts. Our capacity for shock erodes. Our sense of urgency can diminish, and we may begin to ignore the problem, because we feel helpless, and simply can't bear to look.

When our culture of violence is acknowledged -- usually because of a concentrated act of destruction like this one, with numerous fatalities -- liberals and conservatives alike repeat their usual refrains about prayer, mental illness and gun laws. And nothing changes.

After Wednesday's shooting, I came across some images from the Instagram page of the suspected shooter, Nikolas Cruz. From guns and knives to a MAGA hat and a frog Cruz claimed to have killed, Cruz's photos foreshadowed something terrible, regardless of scale. In a culture of care and regard for others, there would have been some intervention here a long time ago.

These moments of shocking mass violence never seem to spark such conversations on a broad scale. Instead, we turn to talk of punishment. But as Cruz's expulsion reminds us, punishing troubled youth does not detoxify our communities. Would things have gone differently, in Cruz's case, with greater community intervention? Perhaps not. We cannot know, and I'm by no means pointing an accusing finger at those who interacted with Cruz. Rather, I am naming a genuine failure of our society. We have not, large-scale, made any necessary efforts to address violence in a transformative manner, even though smaller scale restorative efforts have shown great promise. Rather than initiating conversations about what more we can do, moments like this one only seem to reinforce a cycle of futile discourse.

In a society that both saturates itself with violence and extends its violent reach around the globe, it's not surprising that few people want to speak to why violence occurs.

Discussions of gun violence in the United States are something of a political treadmill. We all know the script. Republicans offer thoughts and prayers, liberals demand more criminalization of those who possess and use guns, and nothing ever changes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has forwarded legislation that would ban the AR-15 -- the weapon Cruz employed in Wednesday's shooting, which was also wielded in mass killings in San Bernardino, Orlando, Newtown and Sandy Hook -- acknowledges that the effort is a symbolic one. Feinstein argues that the bill exists so that "the American people will know that a tool to reduce these massacres is sitting in the Senate, ready for debate and a vote." What the country gains from this knowledge, in the current climate, when such a bill has no hope of passage, is unclear. In a country where gun laws are already shoddily enforced, and prosecutions disproportionately target the Black community -- with an even greater racial disparity in federal gun prosecutions than in drug prosecutions -- a bill that sits idle, reminding the public that Republicans don't care, hardly seems solutionary.

In a society that both saturates itself with violence and extends its violent reach around the globe, it's not surprising that few people want to speak to why violence occurs. The problem is so massive that it's overwhelming, so we instead question the tools in play. Regardless of whether a law would have stopped the killings politicians cite while endorsing it, liberals will reliably back those laws. It is not deemed relevant, in such conversations, that over 5 million Americans already own AR-15s, or that fears such weapons might be banned have only led to surges in sales after major shootings. When the first assault weapon ban went into effect in 1994, there were approximately 1.5 million assault weapons and more than 24 million high-capacity magazines in private hands in the US. That law, of course, was easily evaded by manufacturers, because its rules were incredibly specific, and thus made room for minor deviations. After all, the term "assault weapon" is largely political; there is no fixed technical definition. A ban on all semi-automatic weapons is not feasible, because such a bill would functionally ban most guns in the United States -- which is a goal that neither major party supports.

It's noteworthy that the 1994 ban caused "no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence," according to a 2004 report to the Justice Department. Such findings were fairly unsurprising, since assault weapons were used in only 2 percent of gun crimes prior to the '94 ban -- a number that also mirrors current statistics.

Mass shootings are merely the amplification of a very American phenomenon, and we do not have a broad-based commitment, as a nation, to combat the roots of violence.

Political power has shifted between the major parties multiple times since 1994, but the United States has never meaningfully altered its relationship with firearms. Even in 1994, assault weapons that had been purchased prior to the bill's passage remained legal. A similar non-retroactivity provision should be expected in any future gun legislation that may one day, in the not-so-foreseeable future, come to a successful vote, because the Republicans and the National Rifle Association -- along with a large portion of the US population -- would demand as much. In 1994, that meant 1.5 million assault weapons remained legal. Now, it would mean over 5 million AR-15s would likewise remain legally owned.

But highlighting the futility of gun control arguments seems to have little impact on their regurgitation. Something is better than nothing, Democrats often insist. But at a time of constant crisis, and unthinkable harm, is something that accomplishes nothing really better? Are we, like Feinstein, trying to define ourselves as being more moral in our aims, even if we are ineffectual in our efforts? It's past time we acknowledge that this "something" confines the energy, imaginations and efforts of those who fixate on it. These gun control arguments are a feedback loop that goes nowhere and does no good.

We can't jail our way out of this violence. Laws don't halt addictions, and this country is addicted to guns. Firearms are fetishized, to an alarming extent (probably in many of your own minds, if you're honest about it), and the country is flooded with them. Gun sales are actually down under Trump, but that won't ultimately matter, because the weapons are already out there. And if you're imagining a world where police kick down doors and pry the guns from conservatives' still-warm or cold, dead hands, I think we are living in different worlds.

In the world I live in, people like Cliven Bundy get to point rifles at cops, in armed standoffs, without consequence, while unarmed Black and Native people are gunned down with impunity. White vigilantes are found not guilty, regardless of the blatancy of their crimes. Marginalized people are gunned down without cause by police, while white spree killers are brought in alive. The world I live in is one of systemic violence and structural racism, wherein marginalized people are ensnared by the criminal punishment system for self-defense.

Prohibition has never saved us from ourselves -- only transformation can do that.

I am aware of the much-touted success stories, of other countries that have enacted strict gun laws, but such comparisons tend to erase the many differences between those countries and the United States. We live in a death-making culture, and we are world leaders in that respect, on a variety of fronts. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world -- a characterization that's as true now as it was when MLK himself was struck down by American violence. Violence takes many shapes, and our acceptance of it as a social, cultural and economic norm creates a landscape where blatant, physical manifestations of our country's corrupt character are inevitable.

Mass shootings are merely the amplification of a very American phenomenon, and we do not have a broad-based commitment, as a nation, to combat the roots of violence. As the opioid epidemic ravages communities, Donald Trump claims an increase in the violence of incarceration will solve the problem. Programs that address desperate conditions and community conflicts, in a caring, transformative manner, are not prioritized in our society, even amongst those who would bristle at Trump's carceral "problem solving."

I do not, in this heated moment, expect people to stop discussing gun control. It's a refrain that won't fade easily, and many are deeply invested in it. But I will ask, given all that we know, and all that's at stake, that people not treat calls for such legislation as ends in themselves. Prohibition has never saved us from ourselves -- only transformation can do that. Idle laws are a poor substitute for the work of building a society that truly values life and prioritizes the creation of safety. The real work lies in unravelling our death-making culture, and facilitating the transformation of both individuals and communities.

Categories: News

Nothing is True

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 05:00
Categories: News

The Costs of US Wars Are Staggering, but Most Americans Continue to Ignore Them

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 05:00

 The US Army)US Army soldiers engage in a live-fire exercise in the Zabul province of Afghanistan, July 1, 2010. (Photo: The US Army)

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I'm in my mid-thirties, which means that, after the 9/11 attacks, when this country went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq in what President George W. Bush called the "Global War on Terror," I was still in college. I remember taking part in a couple of campus antiwar demonstrations and, while working as a waitress in 2003, being upset by customers who ordered "freedom fries," not "French fries," to protest France's opposition to our war in Iraq. (As it happens, my mother is French, so it felt like a double insult.) For years, like many Americans, that was about all the thought I put into the war on terror. But one career choice led to another and today I'm co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

Now, when I go to dinner parties or take my toddler to play dates and tell my peers what I do for a living, I've grown used to the blank stares and vaguely approving comments ("that's cool") as we quickly move on to other topics. People do tend to humor me if I begin to speak passionately about the startlingly global reach of this country's military counterterrorism activities or the massive war debt we're so thoughtlessly piling up for our children to pay off. In terms of engagement, though, my listeners tend to be far more interested and ask far more penetrating questions about my other area of research: the policing of Brazil's vast favelas, or slums. I don't mean to suggest that no one cares about America's never-ending wars, just that, 17 years after the war on terror began, it's a topic that seems to fire relatively few of us up, much less send us into the streets, Vietnam-style, to protest. The fact is that those wars are approaching the end of their second decade and yet most of us don't even think of ourselves as "at war."

I didn't come to the work that's now engulfed my life as a peace activist or a passionate antiwar dissenter. I arrived circuitously, through my interest in police militarization, during my PhD work in cultural anthropology at Brown University, where the Costs of War Project is housed. Eventually, I joined directors Catherine Lutz and Neta Crawford, who had co-founded the project in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. Their goal: to draw attention to the hidden and unacknowledged costs of our counterterror wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a number of other countries as well.

Today, I know -- and care -- more about the devastations of Washington's post-9/11 wars than I ever imagined I would. And judging from public reactions to our work at the Costs of War Project, my prior detachment was anything but unique. Quite the opposite: it's been the essence of the post-9/11 era in this country.

Numbers to Boggle the Mind

In such a climate of disengagement, I've learned what can get at least some media attention. Top of the list: mind-boggling numbers. In a counterpoint to the relatively limited estimates issued by the Pentagon, the Costs of War Project has, for instance, come up with a comprehensive estimate of what the war on terror has actually cost this country since 2001: $5.6 trillion.  It's an almost unfathomably large number. Imagine, though, if we had invested such funds in more cancer research or the rebuilding of America's infrastructure (among other things, Amtrak trains might not be having such frequent deadly crashes).

That $5.6 trillion includes the costs of caring for post-9/11 veterans as well as spending to prevent terrorist attacks on US soil ("homeland security"). That figure and its annual updates do make the news in places like the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic magazine and are regularly cited by reporters. Even President Trump, we suspect, has absorbed and, in his typical fashion, inflated our work in his comment at the end of last year that the US has "foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East" (which just months earlier, more in line with our estimate, he had at $6 trillion).

The media also commonly draws on another set of striking figures we issue: our calculations of deaths, both American and foreign, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. As of 2016, about 14,000 American soldiers and contractors and 380,000 inhabitants of those countries had been killed. To these estimates, you have to add the deaths of at least 800,000 more Afghans, Iraqis, and Pakistanis from indirect causes related to the devastation caused by those wars, including malnutrition, disease, and environmental degradation.

Once you get past the shocking numbers, however, it becomes far harder to get media (or anyone else's) attention for America's wars. Certainly, the human and political costs in distant lands are of remarkably little interest here. Today, it's difficult to imagine a devastating war photo making the front page of a mainstream newspaper, much less galvanizing protest, as several now-iconic images did during the Vietnam era.

In August, for instance, the Costs of War Project issued a report that revealed the extent to which immigrant workers in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan are exploited. From countries like Nepal, Colombia, and the Philippines, they work for the US military and its private contractors doing jobs like cooking, cleaning, and acting as security guards. Our report documented the kinds of servitude and the range of human rights abuses they regularly face. Often, immigrants are stuck there, living in dangerous and squalid conditions, earning far less than they were promised when recruited, and with no recourse to or protection from the American military, civilian officials, or their home governments.

Our report's revelations were, I thought, dramatic, largely unknown to the American public, and another reason to demand a conclusion to our never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were also a significant black mark against the private contracting companies that, for years now, have profited so greatly from those wars. Nonetheless, the report got next to no coverage, as has often been the case when it comes to human suffering in those war zones (at least when the sufferers are not US soldiers).

Do Americans really not care? That, at least, seems to have been the judgment of the many journalists who received our press release about the report.

In truth, this has become something like a fact of life in America today, one that's only been made more extreme by the media's full-time fascination with President Donald Trump -- from his tweets to his insults to his ever-wilderstatements.  He -- or rather the media obsession with his every twitch -- poses just the latest challenge to getting attention of any sort for the true costs to us (and everyone else) of our country's wars.

One small way we've found of getting around this media vortex is by tapping into pre-existing communities of interest like veterans' groups. In June 2017, for instance, we issued a report on the injustices faced by post-9/11 veterans released from the military with "bad paper" or other-than-honorable discharges, usually thanks to minor forms of misconduct, acts that often stem from trauma sustained during military service. Such bad papers leave veterans ineligible for healthcare, education, and housing assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs. While the report got little press attention, news of it traveled along the circuits of veterans-oriented blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds, generating far more interest and commentary. It was even, we later learned, used by such groups in attempts to influence veteran-related legislation.

War to the Horizon and a Demobilized Public and Congress

At heart, though, whatever our small successes, we continue to face a grim reality of this twenty-first-century moment, one that long preceded the presidency of Donald Trump: the lack of connection between the American public (myself once included) and the wars being fought in our names in distant lands. Not surprisingly, this goes hand-in-hand with another reality: you have to be a total war jockey, someone who follows what's happening more or less full time, to have a shot at knowing what's really going on in the conflicts that now extend from Pakistan into the heart of Africa

After all, in this era, secrecy is the essence of the world of Washington, invariably invoked in the name of American "security." As a researcher on the subject, I repeatedly confront the murkiness of government information about the war on terror. Recently, for instance, we released a project I had worked on for several months: a map of all the places where, in one fashion or another, the US military is now taking some sort of action against terrorism -- a staggering 76 nations, or 40% of the countries on the planet.

Of course, it's hardly surprising these days that our government is far from transparent about so many things, but doing original research on the war on terror has brought this into stark relief for me. I was stunned at how difficult it can be to find the most basic information, scattered at so many different websites, often hidden, sometimes impossible to locate. One obscure but key source for the map we did, for example, proved to be a Pentagon list labeled "Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medals Approved Areas of Eligibility." From it, my team and I were able to learn of places like Ethiopia and Greece that the military deems part of that "War on Terrorism." We were then able to crosscheck these with the State Department's "Country Reports on Terrorism," which officially document terrorist incidents, country by country, and what each country's government is doing to counter terrorism.

This research process brought home to me that the detachment many Americans feel in relation to those post-9/11 wars is matched -- even fed -- by the opacity of government information about them. This no doubt stems, at least in part, from a cultural trend: the demobilization of the American people. The government demands nothing of the public, not even minimalist acts like buying war bonds (as in World War II), which would not only help offset the country's growing debt from its war-making, but might also generate actual concern and interest in those wars. (Even if the government didn't spend another dollar on its wars, our research shows that we will still have to pay a breathtaking $8 trillion extra in interest on past war borrowing by the 2050s.)

Our map of the war on terror did, in fact, get some media attention, but as is so often the case when we reach out to even theoretically sympathetic congressional representatives, we heard nothing back from our outreach. Not a peep. That's hardly surprising, of course, since like the American people, Congress has largely been demobilized when it comes to America's wars (though not when it comes to pouring ever more federal dollars into the US military). 

Last October, when news came out about four Green Berets killed by an Islamic State affiliate in the West African nation of Niger, congressional debates revealed that American lawmakers had little idea where in the world our troops were stationed, what they were doing there, or even the extent of counterterrorism activity among the Pentagon's various commands. Yet the majority of those representatives remain all too quick to grant blank checks to President Trump's requests for ever greater military spending (as was also true of requests from presidents Bush and Obama).

After visiting some congressional offices in November, my colleagues and I were struck that even the most progressive among them were talking only about allocating slightly -- and I mean slightly -- less money to the Pentagon budget, or supporting slightly fewer of the hundreds of military bases with which Washington garrisons the globe. The idea that it might be possible to work toward ending this country's "forever wars" was essentially unmentionable.

Such a conversation could only come about if Americans -- particularly young Americans -- were to become passionate about stopping the spread of the war on terror, now considered little short of a "generational struggle" by the US military. For any of this to change, President Trump's enthusiastic support for expanding the military and its budget, and the fear-based inertia that leads lawmakers to unquestioningly support any American military campaign, would have to be met by a strong counterforce. Through the engagement of significant numbers of concerned citizens, the status quo of war making might be reversed, and the rising tide of the US counterterror wars stemmed.

Toward that end, the Costs of War Project will continue to tell whoever will listen what the longest war(s) in US history are costing Americans and others around the world.   

Categories: News