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Arizona Educators Stage First Statewide Walkout as Teacher Revolt Grows

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 04:00

Strikers listen to a speaker during the #RedForEd strike in Arizona, April 25, 2017. (Photo: Arizona Education Association)Leaders of Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association hold a press conference in the run-up to today's walkout in Phoenix, Arizona, April 25, 2017. (Photo: Arizona Education Association)

Unlike West Virginia and Oklahoma, today's teacher walkout in Arizona is the first statewide strike ever held by educators in the Grand Canyon State. But the state still resembles others revolting this spring because educators there also lack collective bargaining rights under so-called "right-to-work" provisions, and their decision walk out over decades of low pay and cuts to education is technically illegal.

Strikers listen to a speaker during the #RedForEd strike in Arizona, April 25, 2017. (Photo: Arizona Education Association)Leaders of Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association hold a press conference in the run-up to today's walkout in Phoenix, Arizona, April 25, 2017. (Photo: Arizona Education Association)

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Also See: Meet the Music Teacher Who Helped Organize the Arizona Teacher Strike

Unlike West Virginia and Oklahoma, today's teacher walkout in Arizona is the first statewide strike ever held by educators in the Grand Canyon State. But the state still resembles others revolting this spring because educators there also lack collective bargaining rights under so-called "right-to-work" provisions, and their decision walk out over decades of low pay and cuts to education is technically illegal.

As of now, Arizona teachers may be risking a bit more than teachers elsewhere due to a 1971 opinion from the state attorney general spelling out that those who engage in a strike could be terminated or lose their teaching credentials. Despite this, 78 percent of the approximately 57,000 Arizona teachers who cast ballots last Thursday voted in favor of today's action. Between 30,000 to 50,000 are expected to march through Phoenix to the state capitol building today as more than 100 school districts close.

Colorado is the fifth state to join the national movement for fully-funded schools, linking up with Arizona today and tomorrow in closing school districts serving about half the student population, including its three largest districts, as more than 10,000 teachers protest in Denver. Republicans lawmakers there, however, are pushing legislation that would see teachers punished with fines and up to six months in country jail for striking.

In Arizona, teachers are collectively seeing through Republican Gov. Doug Ducey's empty promises to provide a 20 percent pay hike by 2020 and restore school budgets to pre-Recession levels over the next five years -- all without raising taxes. They say the plan fails to address much-needed funding for classrooms and support staff and is unrealistic over the long term. If the governor's plan is approved without new sources of revenue, legislative budget analysts predict a $265 million statewide deficit in 2020.

Governor Ducey met with lawmakers this week, including Democrats, to push his budget plan, but he did not respond to two letters requesting face-to-face talks from the organizations leading the work stoppage, Arizona Educators United (AEU) and the Arizona Education Association (AEA). The governor did, however, meet earlier with a group of teachers who were not among either organizations' leadership.

"He brought teachers in to say, 'Hey, I talked to teachers,'" said Noah Karvelis, who teaches music at Tres Rios Service Academy in the Littleton Elementary School District in Tolleson and founded AEU. "I think he expected a photo and a couple nice sound bites from teachers. He tried to go around us but ... hopefully, we'll be speaking a language he understands now."

Governor Ducey's office did not respond to Truthout's request for comment. Today's walkout also comes as the state's Republicans are still reeling from a recent special election, barely managing to hold onto to their congressional seat by a five-point margin in a district that Donald Trump won by 21 percentage points in 2016.

Like other Republican-dominated states where teachers are revolting, Arizona has slashed approximately $1 billion from schools since the beginning of the 2008 recession while simultaneously cutting taxes. It came in third-to-last in 2015 in terms of spending per pupil, and teachers average a $47,000 annual salary, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, teachers just starting their careers see much lower salaries, and it's these young educators who are most-actively leading the effort there.

Arizona's #RedforEd movement has been spearheaded by Arizona Educators United, a grassroots group and Facebook page with more than 49,500 members. The Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, by contrast, has 20,000. Such numbers, however, are par for the course in a state where unions do not collectively bargain with school districts and representation is not mandatory.

Arizona's teacher movement has been led from the bottom up, and less so by the predominant union in the state.

Karvelis, who has lived paycheck to paycheck during his two years teaching and recently moved after being priced out of his residence, said the campaign started when he created the very first #RedforEd event on Facebook in March. The movement and page grew from there, progressing into a strategy of coordinated protests in which educators "walk in" to their schools and lay out their demands. Like other states, Arizona's teacher movement has been led from the bottom up, and less so by the predominant union in the state.

"What [the AEA] has done, is they've realized that the power is with the educators right now. That is the power of this movement … it's educators standing up for other educators. So they've allowed us to really retain our position in that, and lead the charge on this," Karvelis said. "That collaboration of a grassroots, citizen- and teacher-led movement along with the union is proving to be especially powerful in a conservative, right-to-work state."

Despite the 1971 attorney general opinion, Karvelis said the prospect of mass firings or stripping of teacher certifications remains unlikely in view of the overwhelming decision from the state's teachers in favor of the walkout. The state also faces a staffing shortage crisis in subjects like math, science and special education as teachers move out of state to see better-funded classrooms -- and pay increase of more than $20,000 a year in some states.

Both the AEU and AEA have worked to inform their members of the penalties attached to the 1971 opinion. While then-Attorney General Gary Nelson's opinion didn't specify any fine or jail time as a consequence of a work stoppage, the prospect of districts targeting particular teachers seen as leaders remains a possibility, according to AEA President Joe Thomas.

"I hear people from time to time say, 'They can't fire all of us,' or 'They can't take all of our certificates.' Well, I don't want anyone to confuse that with job security. It's a very different thing," Thomas told Truthout. "They might just take your certificate, or might just fire you because you are seen as a troublemaker."

That's why several public school boards acting in solidarity with the walkout have voted to remove punitive language from their district policies. So far, no district has announced any plans to terminate or revoke the certificates of educators who walk out today. But some teachers who are already planning to relocate to another state because they can't make ends meet say they have nothing to lose anyway.

MacKenzy Watson moved from Ohio to Arizona just out of college to teach third-graders at the Glenn F. Burton School in Glendale, and she plans to find a teaching job back home this June because she can't support herself "in any way by being a teacher" in Arizona.

On top of that, she's had to deal with ballooning class sizes of between 30 and even 50 students in cases when the school was unable to find a substitute teacher. Watson picks up as many after-school activities as she can to bring in some much-needed extra cash, including tutoring, coaching and other after-school programs. Her rent, student loans, insurance premiums and other bills eat up the entirety of her paychecks. She'd have to get a second job, she says, if it wasn't for the support she receives from her family.

"Honestly, it's more worth it to just try and get a job out there [in Ohio], even moving back without a job, than to stay [in Arizona]," Watson told Truthout. Despite her impending departure, she still plans to join her colleagues today in walking out of class and has also participated in "walk-in" protests at her school each Wednesday.

Parents are also banding together in communities to support the walkout, cooperatively sharing child care duties for other parents who must work.

"I know that I'm moving, but I still love my students and I love the people that I met here, and I need to be able to support them. It's all for my students," she said."Even though I am leaving, I'm still trying to do this to help them get a better education because they deserve it. It's not about me. It's about them."

Still, even if today's walkout does not see repercussions, the state's right-to-work provisions are affecting the movement in other ways. AEU has worked closely with attorneys to craft the language being used on GoFundMe pages to raise funds for staging the walkout, for instance. Karvelis, however, said the group was still working toward a longer-term strike fund in the run-up to today's walkout.

He remains concerned about how the strike could affect districts where school shutdowns would see hourly workers like custodians without their paychecks. He's had conversations with his own superintendent about a model that would still allow hourly workers to clock in.

"Hourly workers in our schools are a huge concern. But they're included in our demands. They're included in the movement," Karvelis told Truthout. "They were included in the vote. So we'll be keeping really strong lines of communication still open there so that we can put everybody in a progressive place without impacting them in a negative way."

Parents are also banding together in communities to support the walkout, cooperatively sharing child care duties for other parents who must work. It's a reflection of the vigorous public support that teachers' walkouts and protests have received throughout this season.

Unlike West Virginia and Oklahoma's walkout, Arizona's teachers are demanding the legislature's immediate concession of any new tax cuts. Oklahoma's teachers did unsuccessfully push the legislature to eliminate the state's capital gains tax exemption, but stopped short of a broader demand for no new cuts.

Teachers' 20 percent pay raise would be covered if legislators simply reversed the corporate tax cuts they have enacted.

In addition to providing a generous capital gains break, Arizona legislators cut personal income tax rates by 10 percent in 2006 and cut corporate tax rates by 30 percent in 2011, shortchanging the state's general fund. According to the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, teachers' 20 percent pay raise would be covered if legislators simply reversed the corporate tax cuts they have enacted. Moreover, tax exemptions for special interests have hit the state hard. More than $13.5 billion in taxes went uncollected during the last fiscal year -- the majority coming from a range of services that are exempt from the state's sales tax, according to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.

Thomas pointed to one tax exemption for downloadable data purchased over the internet, known as the "Netflix" cut. Teachers in Oklahoma similarly pushed for Amazon and other online retailers to collect state sales tax on items sold through their platforms from third-party vendors.

"I think the tax cuts are going to become -- very quickly -- toxic, and legislators just will not do them because everyone will begin to understand what educators know … that tax cuts hurt students," Thomas told Truthout. "It's a huge risk for legislators to advance that stuff."

The AEU and AEA plan to sustain the walkout until their demands are met, as long as members remain supportive. If legislators do not come up with a suitable plan for school funding, the groups may consider a ballot initiative, leaders said.

Categories: News

Two Court Cases Will Determine if the Judicial System Will Enforce the Constitution in the Face of Trump

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 14:29

Today, two courts will have to decide whether to uphold our country's system of checks and balances, limiting the damage the Trump administration has done and will do to the thousands of people facing deportation, in detention or being refused entry to the US. Will the courts uphold the Constitution even in the face of an executive branch determined to ignore it?

 Fibonacci Blue)Protesters display signs during a march against Donald Trump's proposed Muslim ban on January 31, 2017, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue)

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Today is a big day for Sam Hamama, a Chaldean Christian who has lived in Michigan for 40 years with his wife and four children, and whom the Trump administration wants to deport to Iraq where he likely would be persecuted, tortured or killed. The federal Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is hearing arguments in our case to decide whether the administration can deport Hamama -- as well as some 1,400 other Iraqi Americans -- without giving them a chance for an immigration judge to consider the danger they face in Iraq. Today is also a big day for Hilal Alkateeb, a fellow Michigan resident and US citizen, whose Yemeni wife was barred from joining him in the US under the administration's Muslim ban, the constitutionality of which is before the US Supreme Court this morning.

Hamama and Alkateeb's lives, and their legal cases, are inextricably linked. Hamama faces danger in Iraq because he is Christian. But his life hangs in the balance in a Cincinnati courtroom today because of the Muslim ban, and specifically the administration's efforts to paper over the fact that the Muslim ban was intended to harm families like Alkateeb's. That effort to hide the Muslim ban's true purpose is exactly the issue before the Supreme Court in Washington.

The link between Hamama and Alkateeb was born on the campaign trail when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump promised "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." A week after the inauguration, he delivered, issuing Muslim ban 1.0, an executive order that enshrined anti-Muslim bigotry into national policy by barring people from seven predominantly Muslim countries including Iraq, and suspending refugee admissions, with an exception for Christian refugees.

Alkateeb's family was among the thousands affected. Alkateeb met his wife, Rim, in Yemen. They married and had a baby. The immigration process for her to come to the US took so long that their US-citizen daughter is now a toddler. Under Muslim ban 1.0, Rim, despite being authorized to enter the US, could suddenly not join Alkateeb, and the family faced the stark choice of separating their daughter from her mother, or leaving both to risk their lives in Yemen, where Rim's brother had been killed in a bombing. Ultimately, Alkateeb and his daughter joined our lawsuit in Michigan, which will be impacted by whatever the Supreme Court decides.

Courts halted Muslim ban 1.0 as a clear-cut example of religious discrimination. Rather than fight in court, Trump issued Muslim ban 2.0, removing the Christian exception and some of the most obvious anti-Muslim language. Iraq was removed from the list of banned countries, and part of the political quid pro quo was that Iraq would take back people like Hamama -- longtime US residents with very old deportation orders. In June 2017, Hamama -- whose wife and children are all US citizens -- was arrested without warning for immediate deportation, along with hundreds of other Iraqis.

According to the US State Department, religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq -- including Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yazidis and Christians like Hamama -- face kidnapping, slavery, sexual violence and summary executions. An emergency ruling by the federal district court in Detroit temporarily halted Hamama's deportation, giving him a chance to show an immigration judge that he'll be persecuted or killed if deported to Iraq.

Meanwhile, courts blocked Muslim ban 2.0. Alkateeb's wife got her visa; she and their daughter were able to reunite with Alkateeb in Michigan. But in September, Trump issued Muslim ban 3.0, which the Supreme Court has permitted to go into effect. While some families, like Alkateeb's, were reunited while the lower courts' injunctions were in effect, other families remain separated with the ban affecting 150 million people, most of them Muslim.

Alkateeb's and Hamama's experiences both stem from Donald Trump's anti-Muslim bigotry. And their cases reflect a defining theme of his presidency: the critical role of our courts, which is to uphold the Constitution -- even in the face of an executive branch determined to ignore it.

Today, the Trump administration is doubling down, making essentially the same argument in both Washington and Cincinnati: Courts are powerless to enforce the Constitution. In the Muslim ban case, the administration is claiming that so long as it removed the most glaring anti-Muslim language from the ban on the third try, courts cannot look behind the text to consider the ban's true purpose. In the case on behalf Hamama and other Iraqi nationals, the administration is arguing that, regardless of whether they would be killed in Iraq, the district court did not have the power to stop their deportations.

Our democracy depends on a system of checks and balances, and is designed to give courts the power to decide whether the executive branch has violated the Constitution. Today, two courts will have to decide whether to uphold that system, limiting the damage the Trump administration has done and will do to the thousands facing deportation, in detention or being refused entry to the US. Both the constitutional checks on unbridled executive power -- and the lives of people like Alkateeb and Hamama -- are at stake.

Categories: News

The Only Work the Farm Bill Will Create Is Paperwork

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 13:03
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This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.

Last week, perhaps in an effort to mentally pull out of Montana's long winter months, I organized my home office, working my way through a decade's worth of various files, folders, and scraps of paper I'd saved for whatever reason. Some, like quotes or story ideas, I'd saved because I am a writer and writers do things like keep journals they wrote in when they were 10. Others, like pay stubs, taxes, utility bills, and child support documents, I'd held onto out of an old habit.

For several years, when I worked a scattered schedule of hours cleaning houses while putting myself through college and raising my young daughter on my own, I always carried around three months' worth of income and expenses in a purple folder. Because of my irregular schedule, and the hand-written personal checks I received instead of pay stubs, it seemed as if I constantly needed to prove to someone that I was, in fact, in need. That I was verifiably poor.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps) was the one program we could rely on back then, even though it was difficult to sign up for it sometimes. It was, by all accounts, predictable, and something I could budget for. Most importantly, by checking the "SNAP" box on other paperwork, like my daughter's free school lunches, our utility assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and both of my daughters' Medicaid, I automatically qualified for benefits. No questions, no long phone conversations, no missing work to spend an afternoon waiting to talk to a caseworker. This is called broad-based categorical eligibility, and it faces extinction, joining many other cuts in the House Agriculture Committee's 2018 Farm Bill.

During almost six hours of recent debates over the bill, dubbed the "Conaway Bill" after Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX), who presented it without much sub-committee discussion beforehand, House Democrats spent the majority of the time angrily raking the proposed repeals and amendments surrounding the nutrition program focused on food insecurity.

"This bill as it is written kicks people off the SNAP program," the committee's ranking member, Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota barked in his opening statements. "The chairman calls it self-selection. Call it whatever you want, it's reducing the SNAP rolls."

The "self-selection" Peterson is referring to is Conaway's plan to force people to complete additional paperwork. SNAP will now require recipients to prove they have worked enough hours to qualify for the program by submitting statements at the end of every month. If a person fails to do this, they'll lose benefits for 12 months; the next time it's 36. That's four years of being ineligible for food benefits for not submitting a single piece of paper or failing to meet the work requirements for a single month. Conaway refers to this as self-selecting because he considers any failure to complete paperwork to be the same as a recipient opting out of the program on their own accord. Representative David Scott (D-GA) argued it was "additional duplicate confusing paperwork requirements" put in the bill "designed to confuse folks."

When I was in need, I had to reapply for a program every few months, whether it was SNAP, WIC coupons for milk and cereal, or child care grants. Since I was self-employed and supplemented my income with student loans, I had to provide proof of the hours I spent in clients' homes, either by receipt of deposit of monies earned or a statement from the client. It was exhausting, labor-intensive, and often meant many hours on the phone, or at the department's office, waiting for several hours in line—time that cost me jobs and money.

By repealing the broad-based categorical eligibility, severing the link between SNAP and programs like free school lunches and LIHEAP, many people will be forced to submit applications for several kinds of benefits separately, even having to show actual utility bills to get the amounts deducted from their income. Currently, folks who qualify for LIHEAP get a standard utility allowance, much like the standardized deductions in taxes. "This is a backdoor way to kick people off the program," said Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY), calling out the unfairness in severing the ties between SNAP and LIHEAP. "You exempted elderly people from producing utility bills but you didn't exempt disabled people." In a later round of questioning, Maloney repeatedly asked the chairman and other committee members why this was, paused, and said their silence was the answer he needed.

In my office, I ran my hand over that weathered, purple folder before placing it in a larger one labeled "Single Mom Stuff." A box full of old paperwork sat next to my feet, including a half-inch thick packet of documents I'd compiled just three years ago in an attempt to receive a grant for child care. In it, I'd tried to explain what I did as a freelance writer, and how I'd managed to work up until that point with a months-old infant and older kid in first grade. When the letter came to tell me I made $100 too much to qualify, I called my caseworker, who said, "Well, you work late at night when your children are sleeping, anyway, so you don't really need child care." I almost hissed at her that working until 2am wasn't exactly by choice.

For 2 million people who will lose SNAP benefits under the new Farm Bill, and the millions of others who will eventually "self-select" to no longer receive them, either by not getting a utility bill or proof of work hours submitted on time, it undoubtedly won't be by choice, either.

Categories: News

Will the Trump Tower of Corruption Topple?

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 04:00
Categories: News

Nowhere is Safe

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 04:00
Categories: News

As Big Pharma Goes on Lobbying Blitz, US Waits for Trump to Tackle Drug Pricing

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 04:00

President Trump postponed a speech on bringing down prescription drug prices this week after promising to roll out a set of sweeping policy proposals with help from his health czar, Alex Azar. Trump has talked tough about reining in drug prices, but critics point out that Azar is a former pharmaceutical executive and real price controls would require policy changes the industry doesn't like.

 DNY59 / Getty Images)(Photo: DNY59 / Getty Images)

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President Trump postponed a speech on drug pricing this week, leaving observers to wonder whether the White House is rethinking its long-awaited plan to fulfill a major campaign promise and bring down the price of prescription drugs.

During his State of the Union address in January, Trump said that "fixing the injustice" of high drug prices was one of his administration's top priorities. On March 19, Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said they would roll out a list of policy proposals for decreasing drug prices "in about a month" while speaking at an event in New Hampshire. That was more than four weeks ago.

Meanwhile, first-quarter lobbying spending by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the trade group for the pharmaceutical industry, has increased for the second year in a row, from $8 million last year to almost $10 million in 2018, according to federal lobbying disclosures. Last year, PhRMA's first-quarter spending spiked by 34 percent in the wake of Trump's election.  

As Truthout has reported, the cost of pharmaceuticals is expected be one of the top issues shaping the midterm elections. Polls show voters are angry about high drug prices and want political leaders to prioritize bringing them down. Drug manufacturers as well as insurance companies and their pharmacy benefit managers are jockeying for position in the unfolding political debate.

The White House announced Trump would postpone the drug-pricing speech on Monday, a few days after Azar returned from a brief stint in the hospital due to a bowel condition, according to reports. Azar, the former pharmaceutical executive Trump tapped to tackle the drug-pricing issue, is expected to return to work this week, where reports suggest he is surrounding himself with industry insiders.

"Until President Trump decides to take on corporations instead of hiring their executives and lobbyists, he will fail to deliver the change he promised and the relief that Americans making hard choices between filling prescriptions and putting food on the table need," said Steven Knievel, an advocate with Public Citizen's Access to Medicines Program who has analyzed the White House's current policy positions on drug prices. 

Trump Promises to Tackle Drug Prices 

Tapping into consumer anger, Trump accused drug manufacturers of "getting away with murder" and pledged to bring drug prices down on the campaign trail. While the FDA is working to speed up approvals of generic drugs to promote price competition, the White House has had little else to show for all the tough talk.

Drug-pricing measures outlined in the president's budget proposal, which is used to outline policy objectives for Congress, could have a modest impact on costs for some consumers but would not prevent manufacturers from price-gouging and abusing patents to maintain monopoly control over drug formulas, according to analysis by Knievel and Public Citizen.

The president's budget proposal did not include plans to allow the government to use Medicare's massive buying power to negotiate drug prices directly with manufacturers, an idea Trump appeared to support in the past. The proposal has support from frustrated voters of all stripes as well as many Democrats but is generally opposed by the industry and Republicans in Congress, who doubt the government can get better deals than private plans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.  

Still, the pharmaceutical industry is going on the political offensive. PhRMA and various drug and health product companies have already spent nearly $85 million on lobbying so far this year, with individual companies like Pfizer, Novartis and Amgen spending $3.3 million each or more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The industry has contributed millions of dollars in campaign contributions to candidates from both parties running in the 2018 elections. PhRMA is also funding a multimillion-dollar media and television campaign to clean up the industry's image.

Failing to Challenge Big Business

Drug manufacturers set the market price of drugs they make and use exclusive patents to maximize profits. However, the actual prices consumers pay at the pharmacy counter are also shaped by their insurance plans and secret rebating deals struck by different players in the drug supply chain.

In exchange for access to their customers, insurers and their pharmacy benefit managers demand discounts and lucrative rebate payments from drug makers that can substantially lower the total cost of a drug. This means high drug prices do not reflect the actual revenues collected by pharmaceutical companies.

In 2017, the total value of these discounts and rebates provided to insurers reached a record $153 billion, according to the Drug Channels Institute. The difference between the market or "list" price of pharmaceutical drugs and what insurance companies actually pay for them has grown by 10 percent since 2016, but the average cost of brand-name drugs has only grown 1.9 percent. This suggests insurers have incentives to choose high-priced drugs for health plans in order to gobble up steep rebates.

Patient advocates say this system of secret rebates and discounts has put upward pressure on the price of certain drugs such as insulin that people need to survive. This is not a problem for people with robust health coverage, but because insurers often calculate benefits using the inflated list price of a drug, not the "net price" they actually pay after rebates, consumers with high copays and deductibles may pay more out-of-pocket at the pharmacy.  

Under pressure from angry consumers and politicians over high drug prices, drug manufacturers are playing a blame game with insurers, arguing that they must continue raising their prices in order to offer competitive rebates and discounts. PhRMA has also suggested that insurance companies may not be sharing all of the savings from discounts and rebates with their customers in the form of lower premiums.

The insurance industry has pointed the finger back at drug makers, claiming that manufacturers alone set the original list prices for drugs and insurers are only trying to secure the best deals for their health plans. However, two major insurance companies, Aetna and UnitedHealth Group, recently pledged to pass rebate savings on to some of their customers when they buy drugs at the pharmacy, a sign that insurers are not immune to public anger over high drug costs.

Last year, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services proposed requiring that health plans pass some rebate savings along to Medicare Part D beneficiaries at the pharmacy counter, which may be the Trump administration's boldest drug pricing reform proposal to date. This would lower costs for some older Americans and dampen the incentive to offer high-priced drugs on health plans, but it would also raise premiums and increase government spending while doing nothing to control actual drug prices, according to Public Citizen.

"This reform in isolation would increase spending on prescription drugs, so it should be paired with reforms that actually lower the exorbitant prices set by prescription drug corporations," Knievel told Truthout in an email.

Trump and Azar could go much further by requiring Medicare plans to be transparent about how they use rebate revenues and calculate premiums, or ask Congress to outlaw anticompetitive practices that manufacturers use to keep drug prices high. Drug makers spend huge sums of money promoting their products on television, so why not limit the advertising expenditures they can deduct from their taxes, as some Democrats have proposed?

Controlling prescription drugs costs requires crafting new rules for big businesses with serious political clout, and that's not something a former pharmaceutical executive and a president who ran on promises to slash regulations may be able to stomach. Of course, we can't be sure about that until we see what their plan for tackling drug prices looks like, and we've already been waiting on it for a while.

Categories: News

Medicaid Work Requirements: Trump's War on the Poor Expands, One State at a Time

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 04:00

 Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images)Donald and Melania Trump walk out to the North Portico to greet French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron as the Trumps host a state dinner at the White House on Tuesday, April 24, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Unlike the highly publicized battle over Trumpcare, the Republican attack on Medicaid is happening one state at a time, with minimal scrutiny. Last week, two state legislative bodies passed bills that would make Medicaid available only to people who meet stringent work requirements, bringing the total number of states pursuing work requirements to 12. Now, activists across the country are challenging "welfare 2.0," which threatens to leave people who are already struggling without health insurance.

 Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images)Donald and Melania Trump walk out to the North Portico to greet French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron as the Trumps host a state dinner at the White House on Tuesday, April 24, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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Pennsylvania resident Anna Kruk Corbin is a mother of two children with Noonan Syndrome who depend on Medicaid. She is fighting yet another GOP threat to the public health program on which her family relies: The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill on Friday that would throw thousands of people off Medicaid for failure to meet work requirements.

"Medicaid saved my family," Corbin said, noting that she previously would have faced financial ruin if it were not for the program. "We had so much medical debt and credit card debt. It wasn't sustainable."

Corbin devoted much of her life in 2017 to save Medicaid from several horrific versions of Trumpcare. She attended protests more times than she can recount in Washington, DC and at her state capitol in Harrisburg. The regressive national GOP bill was defeated, of course, but attacks on Medicaid are now accelerating at the state level across the country.

On Friday, as the Pennsylvania House passed its anti-Medicaid bill, the Michigan State Senate also passed a similar bill slapping work requirements on Medicaid.

These actions are the most recent example of a wider attack on Medicaid and beyond. Some approving conservatives are dubbing this approach "welfare reform 2.0" -- a callback to President Clinton's 1996 bill that added similar requirements to food and cash assistance.

Unlike with Trumpcare, however, which sparked national media coverage and widespread resistance, many people in the United States do not know what Republicans are doing to Medicaid at the state level.

"It is a challenge to educate people about this issue. The news media is covering Stormy Daniels, the Russia probe, which they should," Corbin said. "But Medicaid is being threatened again, and people need to know about it and fight back like we did a year ago."

Indeed, the current Republican attack on Medicaid is happening one state at a time with minimal scrutiny. Even liberal talk show hosts have largely ignored the subject. On January 11, Trump's Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), run by Seema Verma, sent a letter to state Medicaid directors, saying states could request new eligibility restrictions and cuts with Medicaid 1115 waiver requests (which allow for state-wide experiments using Medicaid funds). At least a dozen states are working on implementing work requirements and a host of other obstacles; Kentucky's program could be in effect as soon as July.

The term "work requirements" does not fully illustrate what the policy entails. States are making many more regressive changes beyond mandating employment. Some states are also asking for approval for life-time caps, lock-out periods, asset tests, health literacy exams, and drug tests for Medicaid recipients, which may well be approved by Trump's Department of Health and Human Services. The president has only furthered his embrace of this approach, issuing Executive Order 13828 on April 10, which advocates for "workfare" reforms to be developed across all social programs. The GOP recently proposed stricter work requirements to food assistance, for instance, as part of a farm bill.

Such restrictions are being sold by the administration as part of a strategy for personal empowerment and "incentivizing community engagement." Health experts, meanwhile, tell Truthout the policy is harmful and rooted in the behaviorist model for social policy, which relies on the false but common notion on the right that poor people are lazy and simply do not want to work.

"People on Medicaid often live very hard lives," said Sara Rosenbaum, an expert on Medicaid at George Washington University. "Seema Verma wants to make it harder. She doesn't seem to understand Medicaid as a public health system. Yet, she is breaking with more than 50 years of long-standing policy."

Welfare Reform and the Clinton Legacy

It is quite telling that conservatives, including members of the Trump White House, are approvingly calling this revival of behaviorism "Welfare Reform 2.0"-- referencing the previous push for "welfare reform" that culminated in President Clinton's 1996 legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

That legislation was negotiated between Clinton and the 104th Congress, a Republican majority pushing "a Contract with America" that proposed work requirements and other cuts to social programs. President Clinton was at the height of his embrace of "Third Way" politics and advanced a GOP model, saying he would "end welfare as we know it." He added lifetime caps and work requirements to food and cash benefits, changing food stamps into the harder-to-access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He also ended the existing cash assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children Act -- which guaranteed cash benefits to eligible families with children for 60 years -- into the unforgiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The bill passed with 25 Democratic votes in the Senate including votes from then-Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. Joseph Biden. In the House, Clinton had to rely on near unanimous support from Republicans with 165 Democrats voting nay, and just 30 supporting the bill. Republicans, by contrast, supported the bill 226-4 in the House.

That the Clinton-era reform so closely mirrors GOP social welfare policy today is a reminder of the Democratic Party's hostile policies toward the poor and the working class under Clinton. The legacy of this bill, a disaster according to numerous studies, is relevant for its role in normalizing these models and in examining the impact "welfare to work" policies had on food and cash assistance programs.

"Symbolically, [the law was] a radical departure in American social welfare, ending the sixty-year federal entitlement to an income floor for poor families," wrote Dan Stoesz, who has authored several books on social policy. By advancing these policies, he wrote, Clinton was embracing the GOP view that many welfare recipients are not simply "cash poor," but also "behaviorally poor."

The effects of the 1996 law are a warning of what will happen if Medicaid is run the same way today. Bryce Covert described the law's impact in The Nation in 2016, 20 years after the law was passed:

Since 1996, the share of single mothers with neither income nor cash benefits has risen from 12 to 20 percent. Meanwhile, the number of families in deep poverty has grown from 2.7 million to 3 million. Extreme poverty -- defined as families who subsist on $2 or less for each person per day -- has seen the most shocking increase: a 159 percent rise since 1996.

Why Work Requirements Don't Work

Supporters of such programs argue that able-bodied Americans have no excuse not to work. Speaking in support of the Michigan work requirement bill, its sponsor, State Senator Mike Shirkey, asked the following questions of Medicaid patients: "Is having Medicaid an important asset to you and your family? ... Why would you allow it to lapse?"

Sen. Shirkey raises relevant questions but does not seem to be genuinely curious about the answers. He asked the question with a false preconception in mind: The poor don't want to work.

Had Shirkey consulted experts on the subject -- some of whom testified in front of the legislature in Michigan -- he would've gotten some answers. There are, in fact, many valid reasons why people can't always meet these requirements, including illness, disability, unstable hours or transportation, difficulty finding work and countless other justifiable concerns.

"These [patients] are people who have Medicaid for a variety of reasons, from having had tragic accidents that have left them homebound, to having temporarily low incomes due to unexpected life changes," said Gilda Z. Jacobs, a former lawmaker and president of the Michigan League for Public Policy. "Yet some lawmakers want to make that struggle even more difficult."

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) summarized the harmful effects of the bill in Michigan in an April 19 report and has also done broader studies on work requirements. Still, polling is volatile on the issue and it can be a tough sell, Rosenbaum said.

"This is a difficult subject because when people see something about work [they] think 'Oh, well everyone needs to work,'" she said. "The problem is many don't realize that these people are often taking care of a sick family member or child, or any other number of crises."

In addition, some are sick themselves, some are dealing with a substance abuse disorder, and some have trouble finding work due to a criminal record.

"The CMS guidance fails to recognize the stigma, discrimination and related policy barriers to employment confronting people with criminal records," the Legal Action Network said. "Medicaid work requirements will only compound the obstacles these individuals already face when trying to secure employment."

The CBPP has policy briefs explaining how the requirements hurt various stakeholders: low-income families, the homeless, Medicaid recipients who do work, children, those with mental health issues, older Americans, and sick and/or disabled people all suffer under these policies, they argue. The fact that these populations will suffer from a policy initiated within weeks of a massive tax giveaway for the rich did not go unnoticed by many opponents of Trump's policies.

"I think this is a real learning moment for a lot of people," said Darrion Smith, an activist and labor organizer in North Carolina, a state that is debating work requirements. "To see him take health care away from the needy just as he gives away billions to the superrich is such a blatant act of classism."

So outraged was Louisiana Democrat Dustin Miller that he asked a Republican colleague if "somebody who can't find a job should have to die?" It's not a hyperbolic question. Lack of health insurance is responsible for tens of thousands of preventable deaths each year.

Moreover, the programs are also not a source of any real savings. Reports show they can be time-consuming administrative burdens that do not save money, relieve poverty or  improve health outcomes.

Abusing a Flawed Waiver System 

Medicaid 1115 waivers are not well understood by the public. The waiver process permits states to use federal Medicaid funds in a new "experimental, pilot or demonstration project" that "is likely to assist in promoting the objectives of the program." The National Health Law Program has a website monitoring how these requests are being made in their state and across the country. One problem is that the waiver system is being used for reforms far broader than intended.

"These waivers are tools to do small, narrow projects with. They are using it to do everything," said Leonardo Cuello, health director of the National Health Law Program, in an interview with Truthout.  

Moreover, a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released on January 19 found that the waiver system is deeply flawed and needs major improvements.

About one-third of Medicaid's spending goes toward [1115] demonstrations, which allow states to test new approaches to delivering Medicaid services. Do they save money? Improve care?

The short answer is that states and the federal government don't fully know. We found that the federal government did not require complete and timely evaluations from the states, so conclusive results were not available. Moreover, the federal government wasn't making its evaluation results public -- missing opportunities to inform federal and state Medicaid policy discussions.

These are worrying conclusions, given states lawmakers' increasing use of waivers to make sweeping ideological policies. Ten states are using waiver programs for more than 75 percent of the program, the GAO reports, costing a third of the entire federal Medicaid budget. President Obama pledged to "increase the transparency of the waiver approval process," according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, though clearly progress was limited.

"The GAO does not [go] as far as to say all 1115 waivers should be suspended, but this is the position that we at the National Health Law Program take," Cuello said.

It is worth noting that Medicaid 1115 waivers can sometimes be used for good. At least six states used them to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, for instance. But without accurate, timely data, the efficacy of a project cannot be known.

"Evaluations are essential to determining whether [1115 waivers] are having their intended effects," the GAO noted. The report also observes that Indiana won't look at the effect of the state's provision that locks out enrollees for six months if they fail to pay premiums -- a provision that has been proposed along with work requirements in several instances.

Trying to Save Medicaid -- Again

Organizers and legal advocates are resisting these changes, in both the court of law and the court of public opinion. At least 160 organizations have written to the Department of Health and Human Services to announce their opposition to work requirements. Opponents include labor groups, children's rights advocates, tribal leaders and anti-poverty groups, among many others.

A federal class-action lawsuit in Kentucky -- the first state to receive a waiver  -- against the Trump administration for violating Medicaid law is especially important. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Health Law Program and others are strongly supporting it. Should a judge rule against Trump, this shift to Medicaid could be stalled or stopped, according to Cuello.

Litigation is expected to pop up in other states as well. If the judicial system cannot stop "welfare 2.0," however, the battle will likely come down to whether a movement to stop these policies can counter the GOP and its support from the likes of the Koch Brothers. One advantage that organizers have is their recent experience in fighting GOP health plans -- and stopping them.

The coming elections are also crucial, especially at the state level, at which the waiver requests are created. Republicans now control 33 governor's mansions and two-thirds of state legislative bodies. If Democrats can win back some of these statehouses, however, the odds of work requirements becoming law will be much lower. Further, if the Republicans do not retain the White House in 2020, the next administration would likely rescind CMS Director Verma's policy.

"We can't take this program for granted," mother and activist Corbin said, noting that she will be attending a protest on May 2. "I don't want my kids to live in a world without Medicaid, or access to care. But this could be the case if we don't act. We defeated them before and we have to do it again."

Categories: News

Texas Mother Recalls Being Forced to Bury Fetal Remains After Miscarriage in "Horrific" Ordeal

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 04:00

Last week, a US appeals court declared unconstitutional an Indiana law signed by then-Governor, now Vice President, Mike Pence, that requires fetuses to be buried or cremated. This comes as Texas passed a law last year saying all fetal remains had to be buried or cremated, and also banned donation of that tissue for research purposes. In January, US District Judge David Alan Ezra temporarily halted the fetal remains law, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has vowed to continue fighting for it. For more, we speak with Blake Norton, who had a miscarriage in 2015 at the Seton Medical Center in Austin, Texas, and was forced to choose whether she would let the hospital bury the remains in a shared grave, or arrange for a "private burial" at her own expense. We're also joined by Texas Observer reporter Sophie Novack, whose cover story about Blake Norton is headlined “Indoctrinated: A Catholic hospital in Austin forces patients who miscarry to consent to fetal burials. For one woman, that made a painful loss even worse -- and she worries it could soon become routine across Texas.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

How Mike Pence Enshrined Life-Threatening Catholic Hospital Religious Practices Into Indiana Law

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 04:00

According to reporting by Rewire.News, catholic hospitals across the country are imposing dangerous and life-threatening mandates on their patients, including requiring fetal burial after a miscarriage and restricting access to contraception, abortion, fertility treatments and gender-affirming care for transgender patients. And now, right-wing politicians like Vice President Mike Pence are pushing to enshrine these dangerous practices into law. For more, we speak with Rewire investigative journalist Amy Littlefield.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

Defending Nuclear Pact, Iran's Rouhani Says Trump Has "No Clue" About International Treaties or Law

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 04:00

 Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images)Iran's president Hassan Rouhani gives a speech in the city of Tabriz in the northwestern East-Azerbaijan province on April 25, 2018. (Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images)

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"The nuclear deal is the nuclear deal," said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in response to comments by both US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House a day earlier in which Macron suggested that changes could be made to (or alongside) a multi-lateral nuclear agreement in order to save it from sabotage by the Trump administration.

In a televised speech in Iran on Wednesday, Rouhani said that he spoke with Macron at length -- presumably before Tuesday's events in Washington, DC -- and told the French president "explicitly that we will not add anything to the deal or remove anything from it, even one sentence."

Not sparing Trump direct rebuke, Rouhani blasted the US president as unqualified for his position, declaring: "You have no clue about politics, no clue about the law or international treaties. You are just a businessman, a tradesman. You are a tower builder. How is he going to pass judgment on international issues?"

Rouhani warned that Trump and Macron cannot simply re-write a deal that was agreed to by seven parties. "Who allowed you to do that?" the Iranian president asked. "For what? With what right?"

He continued by saying that by agreeing to the the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) -- and by upholding all their commitments to it -- Iran had "shown goodwill to the world." And still, Rouhani reaffirmed -- as Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javar Zarif has also said plainly to US news outlets in recent days -- that with or without the deal his country will "not seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction."

Rouhani said that as long Iran's interests are "guaranteed we will remain in the deal, whether the US remains or not." But, he added, that "if our benefits are not guaranteed, we will not remain in the deal, no matter what the circumstances are."

Macron's new proposal included elements suggesting that further actions could be taken to curb Iran's military power and regional influence, though it remained unclear exactly what they would mean. Macron's offer, the Guardian reported, "seemed calculated to appease the [Trump's] discontent with the current agreement, the [JCPOA] by proposing a broader initiative to tackle other elements of Iran's challenge in the region, particularly its ballistic missile program, and its military role in Syria."

Meanwhile, critics of Trump's threat to torpedo the international agreement continue to voice warnings that doing so puts the US and Iran on a direct path to war.

"Donald Trump is setting up a dangerous catch-22 with Iran," warned Trita Parsi, president of the National American-Iranian Council, in a statement on Tuesday. "Trump is threatening war if Iran restarts nuclear activities on one hand while he unravels the very agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran on the other. This is more than a war of words, Donald Trump is setting us up for a very real military conflict."

Macron and Europe seem "willing to bend over backwards to save the nuclear deal and prevent catastrophe," added Parsi. "When our closest allies express alarm in unison, we should listen. Trump should quit while he is ahead and reaffirm the US commitment to the JCPOA before it is too late. The alternative would be an isolated America, an unchecked Iranian nuclear program, and an escalation towards war."

Categories: News

Eight Years After BP Oil Spill, Sick Cleanup Workers Still Waiting for Day in Court

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 04:00

Thousands of workers BP hired to clean up the spill that polluted the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 have claimed exposure to oil and the dispersant has made them sick and still have not had their day in court. Cleanup workers and their supporters are calling for federal judge Carl Barbier to reverse his decision to delay hearing remaining cases of cleanup workers indefinitely. On April 20th, they delivered a petition with 25,000 signatures seeking justice. 

 Julie Dermansky)Rally in front of the Federal Court in New Orleans on April 20, 2018. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

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On the eighth anniversary of the BP oil spill, Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré stood in front of the New Orleans Federal Court House and called "bullshit" on the court's handling of claims made by those who participated in the cleanup efforts. 

Thousands of workers BP hired to clean up the spill that polluted the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 have claimed exposure to oil and the dispersant has made them sick and still have not had their day in court. "It's a crying damn shame we've allowed this in America," Honoré said.

"Guess who don't have their life back? The people who did the cleanup, the people who have to go home and get public assistance to stay alive, and it's had an impact on their family," Honoré said on April 20 at a rally aimed at seeking justice for cleanup workers.

Honoré joined cleanup workers and their supporters calling for federal judge Carl Barbier to reverse his decision to delay hearing remaining cases of cleanup workers indefinitely. They gathered before delivering a petition with 25,000 signatures seeking justice for the cleanup workers. 

 Julie Dermansky) Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré at April 20 rally in New Orleans. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

The petition states: "The Plaintiff Steering Committee walked away with $700 million; the Claims Administrator, in charge of processing the first round of payments to victims, walked away with $155 million dollars." So far only $60 million has been paid "to a small fraction of the injured people who helped in the cleanup or lived in the designated zones." 

 Julie Dermansky) Jonathan Henderson, an environmental advocate. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

Jonathan Henderson, founder of Vanishing Earth, an environmental watchdog organization, helped compile the numbers cited in the petition from court filings and the medical claims settlement administrator, Garretson Resolution Group Status Report. He said he believes that justice delayed is justice denied. "People end up dying. They give up hope and they stop fighting. Time is what wears people down," Henderson said.

Judge Barbier, the federal judge handling BP oil spill-related cases, made a controversial ruling in 2014 that affected a cleanup workers' class action suit by siding with the oil company's interpretation of a medical settlement agreement. Barbier ruled that those spill workers who hadn't been diagnosed by a doctor before 2012 were not entitled to settlement payments in the class action suit. 

Two recent scientific studies offered mounting evidence of the potential harms resulting from the oil dispersants, Corexit 9500 and Corexit 952, applied to break oil into smaller droplets during cleanup efforts in the 2010 spill.  

A study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that BP oil spill workers exposed to either forms of Corexit were more likely to experience a range of health symptoms such as coughing or burning in the lungs, eyes, nose, or throat. 

In addition, a study from the Uniformed Services University, a federal government-run medical and health sciences school in Maryland, found that almost 2,000 members of the U.S. Coast Guard reporting exposure to oil dispersants experienced negative health issues, including "lung irritation, skin rash, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea," more often than those who avoided dispersants or only had contact with oil. 

I asked BP via email if the company would still use the same types of dispersant if there were another major oil spill but have not received a response. In the past the company has said the use of dispersants was approved by federal environmental agencies and the Coast Guard.

Nalco Environmental Solutions, Corexit's manufacturer, donates to political action committees, according to public documents listed by the Center for Responsive Politics. A report by the center indicates that Nalco's spending on lobbying the year of the spill increased dramatically. Payments in 2010 included $160,000 to Ogilvy Government Relations to lobby on Nalco's behalf on "issues related to the use of Corexit in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill."

Honoré likened the use of dispersant in the Gulf to the recent alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria and drew comparisons to the United States' response: "We were poised to start World War lll over what the Syrians did to their own people, but here, we still haven't held BP accountable." 

"These people are suffering from chemicals that our own government allowed a foreign company [BP] to put in our waters and poison our people," Honoré said.

According to The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune: "Nearly one million gallons was dropped by air, and another 770,000 gallons was injected into the damaged wellhead about a mile under the water's surface. It was the first time dispersants had been used on a large scale and in proximity to people." The unknown impacts of this approach essentially turned the Gulf Coast into a giant petri dish.

 Julie Dermansky) Capt. Joseph Brown, BP oil spill cleanup worker. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

At the April 20 rally, Capt. Joseph Brown spoke of seawater mixed with oil and dispersant getting into his boots and on his legs while working on a boat laying containment boom to keep spilled oil away from Gulf wetlands. He says that not only did this work impact his health, but it sickened his wife too, whom he says was exposed to the chemicals on his dirty clothes.

 Julie Dermansky)George Barisich, fisherman who worked on the BP oil spill cleanup. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

When George Barisich, a third-generation Louisiana commercial fisherman, found he couldn't fish after the spill, he used his boat to assist in the cleanup effort. He said the oil and dispersant damaged his lung capacity and memory. He also asserted that not only did BP fail to inform workers of the potential hazards of Corexit, the company forbade workers from using respirators and threatened to fire workers who complained. 

The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) lays out standards and training for when oil spill cleanup workers should wear respiratory protection. In June 2010, a couple months into the spill, OSHA posted a worker education and training booklet that outlined how to deal with exposure to Corexit and other potential risks of oil spill cleanup. For Corexit, it recommended workers "avoid prolonged breathing of vapors. Use with ventilation equal to unobstructed outdoors in moderate breeze," among other precautions.

 Julie Dermansky)BP oil spill cleanup workers, without respirators, deal with oiled absorbant boom in 2010. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

 Julie Dermansky)BP oil spill cleanup worker, without a respirator, at an oiled wetland in 2010. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

 Julie Dermansky)BP oil spill workers with oiled boom in 2010. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

Tiffany Odoms spoke on behalf of her dead husband Alonzo Odoms, who also worked the oil spill cleanup response. She described him as a healthy 45-year-old before the spill, who died two and a half years later after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. She has filed a wrongful death suit. 

 Julie Dermansky) Tiffany Odoms with her daughter at a rally on the BP oil spill anniversary. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

While thousands of people who took part in the BP spill cleanup have yet to have their cases heard in federal court, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke proposed opening almost all of the nation's coastlines to offshore oil and gas drilling. In addition, Scott Angelle, director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is rolling back key safety regulations put in place after the 2010 well blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig to prevent another such human and environmental disaster.  

Both officials have ties to the oil and gas industry. During his successful 2014 run for a Montana congressional seat, Zinke's campaign received thousands of dollars from companies seeking oil and gas on public lands.

And the Department of Influence, a site the compiles information about the revolving door between special interest lobbyists and political appointees at the Department of the Interior, found that Angelle raised nearly half a million dollars in donations from oil and gas companies in his three unsuccessful bids for elected office in Louisiana. He has also made about $1.5 million since 2012 as a board member of oil and gas pipeline company Sunoco Logistics Partners, while also sitting on the board of the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates state utilities.

Honoré, who founded the GreenArmy, a coalition of Louisiana-based environmental groups focused on fighting pollution, doesn't mince words when it comes to regulatory capture. He often states that "our democracy has been hijacked by the oil and gas industry."

During the April 20 rally, he placed blame on the Obama administration for what he says was letting BP off the hook so easily in the wake of the spill and faulted the Trump administration for what he described as its reckless proposals related to offshore drilling. 

Categories: News

Toronto and Tennessee: Two White Suspects, no Trump Tweets

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 04:00

Continuing a pattern that traces back to the early days of his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump himself has yet to openly acknowledge a series of attacks in which the perpetrators were white.

"The United States stands with the Canadian people in the aftermath of today’s tragic event in Toronto, where a van drove into a crowd of people killing several and injuring many more," the White House's Office of the Press Secretary said in a statement about an incident where a 25-year-old man ran pedestrians over in a van on Monday. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those affected, and we wish a full recovery to those injured.  The United States Government pledges to provide any support Canada may need."

During a press briefing earlier Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders addressed the hero of the Waffle House shooting -- a man named James Shaw Jr., who wrestled the gun away from the shooter -- but focused on other matters.

"I also want to commend the heroic actions of James Shaw Jr. early Sunday morning at a Waffle House in Tennessee," Sanders told reporters at the press conference. "Mr. Shaw saved lives when he wrestled a gun from an active shooter who had opened fire. The President offers his condolences to the victims and their families. He is monitoring the ongoing situation and the White House is in regular contact with state and local officials."

Since the Nashville Waffle House shooting early on Sunday morning, Trump has tweeted about former FBI Director James Comey, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, North Korea, praise he received from political consultant Mary Matalin, the ongoing probe into his campaign's alleged collusion with Russia, his visit with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, sanctuary cities, the confirmation of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, NAFTA, food stamps and the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee (he retweeted Vice President Mike Pence for that last one).

Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd of Fake News NBC just stated that we have given up so much in our negotiations with North Korea, and they have given up nothing. Wow, we haven’t given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2018

....We are a long way from conclusion on North Korea, maybe things will work out, and maybe they won’t - only time will tell....But the work I am doing now should have been done a long time ago!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2018

“I can die happy now with Trump Job performance,” stated Mary Matalin. “A great overall President, stunning!” Thank you Mary.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2018

A complete Witch Hunt!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2018

Funny how all of the Pundits that couldn’t come close to making a deal on North Korea are now all over the place telling me how to make a deal!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2018

Kim Strassel of the WSJ just said, after reviewing the dumb Comey Memos, “you got to ask, what was the purpose of the Special Counsel? There’s no there there.” Dan Henninger of the WSJ said Memos would show that this would be one of the weakest obstruction cases ever brought!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2018

Thank you to the incredible Law Enforcement Officers from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. They keep us safe and are very cool about it! pic.twitter.com/NlhxpPwmzT

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2018

Hard to believe Obstructionists May vote against Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State. The Dems will not approve hundreds of good people, including the Ambassador to Germany. They are maxing out the time on approval process for all, never happened before. Need more Republicans!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 23, 2018

Despite the Democrat inspired laws on Sanctuary Cities and the Border being so bad and one sided, I have instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country. It is a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so naive! WALL

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 23, 2018

Mexico, whose laws on immigration are very tough, must stop people from going through Mexico and into the U.S. We may make this a condition of the new NAFTA Agreement. Our Country cannot accept what is happening! Also, we must get Wall funding fast.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 23, 2018

Here’s a great stat - since January 2017, the number of people forced to use food stamps is down 1.9 million. The American people are finally back to work!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 23, 2018

Notably absent from this list was any reference to either of the attacks that have been dominating headlines, and that have left two countries shaken.

On Sunday, Travis Reinking, a 29-year-old man living in Tennessee, is believed to have committed a mass shooting at a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee that left four people dead. Reinking was on the run for more than a day before a major area-wide manhunt eventually tracked him down to a wooded area near a construction site roughly one mile from where he allegedly committed his crime. It is unclear what Reinking's motives were for committing the mass shooting, although early reports revealed that he had tried to breach the White House last year and considered himself to be a "sovereign citizen."

The silence from the president's Twitter account could mean that, in order of priority, another mass shooting could be less important than a fire in Trump Tower, the residential apartment building owned by his private company (one which the president's family still controls). Trump's tweet came hours after reports of the fire.

Fire at Trump Tower is out. Very confined (well built building). Firemen (and women) did a great job. THANK YOU!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 7, 2018

On Monday, a 25-year-old man in Toronto used his white rental Ryder van to run over a pedestrian crossing the street, then proceeded to drive up a sidewalk and run over innocent people in an indiscriminate manner. The suspect, Alek Minassian, was not believed to have been working with any organized terrorist group, according to The New York Times, and was thus not labelled as a terrorist himself. Nevertheless, his actions caused the deaths of at least 10 people and managed to injure at least 15 others.

One of the ongoing controversies of Trump's presidency has been his seeming tendency to focus more on tragedies that involve non-whites and/or Muslims killing people than he does on those in which the perpetrators are white. For instance, he took several days to respond to violent incidents that were motivated by hatred of Muslims in Kansas and Oregon -- or to a school shooting in January in Kentucky -- but took less than a day to tweet about violent incidents carried out by Muslims in Paris, San Bernardino, Orlando and Manchester.

Another attack in London by a loser terrorist.These are sick and demented people who were in the sights of Scotland Yard. Must be proactive!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2017

Loser terrorists must be dealt with in a much tougher manner.The internet is their main recruitment tool which we must cut off & use better!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2017

While little is known about either suspect, both appear to have been white men.

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Categories: News

History Shows Hypocrisy of US Outrage Over Chemical Weapons in Syria

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 14:49

Given the US culpability in the deaths of tens of thousands of people by Iraqi chemical weapons barely 30 years ago, even many of Bashar al-Assad's fiercest opponents have to question US motivations for bombing Syria earlier this month.

 OLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)Protestors demonstrate against the UK's military involvement as the US and its allies conduct air strikes against Syria. (Photo: Olga Akmen / AFP / Getty Images)

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There are serious legal and strategic concerns regarding the decision by the United States, along with France and Great Britain, to bomb Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma. Even if one considers the April 13 airstrikes on a series of targets in two Syrian cities to be legitimate, it would be naïve to assume that Western powers conducted the bombing out of any sincere moral concern about Syria's apparent use of these horrific banned substances.

To begin with, conventional ordnance provided by the United States, France and Britain to the armed forces of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Iraq and other allied governments have killed many times more civilians than those who have died from chemical attacks in Syria. While, both legally and historically, there is indeed a qualitative difference between chemical and conventional weapons, the use of any ordnance on civilian targets is illegal under international law and is a moral outrage.

Regarding the specific use of chemical weapons, however, the reaction by the United States government nations has been inconsistent.

It was the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, that used chemical weapons on a scale far greater than any country had dared since the weapons were banned 95 years ago. The Iraqis inflicted close to 100,000 casualties among Iranian soldiers using banned chemical agents, resulting in 20,000 deaths and tens of thousands of long-term injuries.

They were unable to do this alone, however. Despite ongoing Iraqi support for Abu Nidal and other terrorist groups during the 1980s, the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism in order to provide the regime with thiodiglycol, a key component in the manufacture of mustard gas and other chemical precursors for their weapons program.

Walter Lang, a senior official with the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), noted how "the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern" to President Reagan and other administration officials since they "were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose." Lang noted that the DIA believed Iraq's use of the chemical was "seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival." In fact, DIA personnel were dispatched to Baghdad during the war to provide Hussein's regime with US satellite data on the location of Iranian troop concentrations in full knowledge that the Iraqis were using chemical weapons against them.

Even the Iraqi regime's use of chemical weapons against civilians was not seen by the US as particularly problematic. The March 1988 massacre in the northern Iraqi city of Halabja, where Hussein's forces murdered up to 5,000 Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons, was downplayed by the Reagan administration, with some officials even falsely claiming that Iran was actually responsible. The United States continued sending aid to Iraq even after the regime's use of poison gas was confirmed.

When a 1988 Senate Foreign Relations committee staff report brought to light Hussein's policy of widespread extermination in Iraqi Kurdistan, Sen. Claiborne Pell introduced the Prevention of Genocide Act to put pressure on the Iraqi regime, but the Bush administration successfully moved to have the measure killed. This came despite evidence emerging from UN reports in 1986 and 1987, prior to the Halabja tragedy, documenting Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians -- allegations that were confirmed both by investigations from the CIA and from US embassy staff who had visited Iraqi Kurdish refugees in Turkey.

However, not only was the United States not particularly concerned about Iraq's use of chemical weapons, the Reagan administration also continued supporting the Iraqi government's procurement effort of materials necessary for their development.

Ironically, long after Iraq had rid itself of these banned weapons, US politicians of both parties retroactively used the Hallabja massacre as a rationalization for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq 15 years later.

Given the US culpability in the deaths of tens of thousands of people by Iraqi chemical weapons barely 30 years ago, even many of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's fiercest opponents have to question US motivations. Indeed, the United States blocked efforts by the United Nations Security Council and the Syrian government itself to establish a region-wide ban on chemical weapons prior to the outbreak of the civil war, which may have very well prevented the subsequent attacks.

It should also be noted that the first country to use chemical weapons in the Middle East was Great Britain in 1920, as part of its efforts to put down a rebellion by Iraqi tribal leaders when British forces seized the country following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed Winston Churchill, who then held the position of Britain's secretary of state for war and air, said: "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes."

None of this should minimize the horror of what the Assad regime has unleashed upon the Syrian people with both its chemical and conventional weapons, nor does it mean that the United States and other Western nations should be complacent in the face of such serious war crimes. At the same time, in addition to questions about the legitimacy and efficacy of the recent attacks on Syria by the United States and its allies, this history makes it difficult for the United States and its allies to take the moral high ground.

Categories: News

Experts on Bayou Bridge Robocalls Have Ties to TigerSwan, Industry Groups

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 14:10

In late March, residents across Louisiana picked up the phone to hear a recorded voice inviting them to join experts for a "free informational conference call on the Bayou Bridge pipeline."

But residents who stayed on the line were never informed that one of those experts -- James "Spider" Marks -- has close ties to TigerSwan, a mercenary private security firm that used counter-terrorism tactics against water protectors at Standing Rock and that's been denied a license to work in Louisiana.

That's not all listeners weren't told.

On a partial recording of the call shared by a Louisiana resident, moderator Craig Stevens identified himself as a "spokesman for Grow America's Infrastructure Now" (GAIN) and told listeners that he'd brought together some "really smart people" to tell them about the pipeline and take some of their questions.

The 163-mile Bayou Bridge pipeline is currently under construction and if completed, will stretch from Lake Charles to St. James Louisiana, cutting through 11 Louisiana parishes and crossing 700 bodies of water. It is part of a larger project slated to connect Energy Transfer Partners' controversial Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota to refineries in St. James Parish and nearby export terminals.

Stevens didn't divulge that he's is also a vice president at DCI Group, a Washington DC-area public relations and lobbying firm with ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is known for persuading legislators to introduce prepackaged bills written by the organization and which serve the interests of its corporate members.

DCI Group has a history of using astroturfing -- a type of campaigning that creates the illusion of having grassroots support -- to advocate against net neutrality, oppose health care reform and promote big tobacco. The firm was linked to a spoof of Al Gore, mocking him and his film, An Inconvenient Truth and was paid by Exxon to cast doubt on climate science.

On the call, Stevens introduced Marks as someone who "you may know from watching CNN and was also the military leader of our forces in Iraq."

Marks -- who was not the "military leader of our forces" in Iraq -- has been criticized in the past for giving what appears to be independent pro-war analysis on CNN and other media outlets without disclosing his connections to military weapons companies and the Pentagon.

In February 2017, Marks spoke in favor of the Bayou Bridge pipeline at a contentious public meeting in Louisiana, where he came under fire for failing to disclose that he was on the TigerSwan advisory board while commenting at the meeting and in an op-ed he wrote for a local paper.

It was one of several op-eds authored by Marks for outlets across the country. Nearly all favor ETP pipeline projects and paint water protectors as violent agitators. Almost none disclosed his ties to TigerSwan.

Since learning of Marks' connection to TigerSwan, at least one publication has banned Marks from future submissions and others have added disclosures.

Calls to confirm Marks' current role at TigerSwan were referred to Wesley Fricks, the company's vice president for governmental affairs and communication. Fricks, a former DCI Group lobbyist who served in the White House under the Bush administration, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Another expert on the call was Brigham McCown, who Stevens introduced as "the former head of the federal pipeline safety agency within the US transportation department."

Although not named by Stevens, that agency is the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA). A recently released report reveals that between 2005 and 2007 -- the years in which McCown oversaw PHMSA -- entities that have since merged into ETP's corporate family were responsible for more than 90 reported pipeline spills.

Listeners weren't told that McCown served as one of the "core infrastructure policy members" in President Trump's transition team and "helped develop the initial framework" for what would become Trump's infrastructure plan.

Nor were listeners told that McCown is currently chairman of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (AAII), a group that last year pushed for increased drilling in the Arctic, noting in a report that climate change could bring new economic opportunity to the arctic due to the thinning ice and increased navigability of Alaska's waters.

Like Marks, McCown also spoke at February 2017 public meeting in Louisiana, touting pipeline safety and speaking in favor of the project.

Stevens did not tell listeners that Marks and McCown are both advisors to GAIN, the organization hosting the call.

In an email, Stevens said not introducing McCown as an advisor was unintentional.

"First, I am almost certain that he was introduced as an advisor to GAIN. It was in my introductory notes. If he wasn't, that was an accidental oversight on my part," said Stevens, adding that McCown, who served as head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) under George W. Bush, is one of the leading pipeline safety experts in the world.

Stevens said he has no specific knowledge of associations Marks and McCown have with other organizations and said they are irrelevant to the coalition's work.

"General Marks is a trusted advisor to the coalition who brings an important national security perspective to the discussion of domestic energy production and distribution, and more broadly to infrastructure investment," said Stevens, who didn't explain why Marks wasn't introduced as a GAIN advisor.

GAIN publically identifies itself as a "diverse coalition of businesses, trade associations, and labor groups that share a vested interest in creating jobs and strengthening our nation's economy through infrastructure development".

In a blog post on its website, GAIN acknowledged the "tele-town hall" took place, telling readers that "experts in the field, ETP officials, and advisers to GAIN all took part in the event to answer questions from residents".

GAIN was formed in May 2017 and according to a press release issued at the time, many members "were also formerly aligned with the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now (MAIN)". 

MAIN advocated in favor of the Dakota Access pipeline and has been linked to attempts to discredit water protectors at Standing Rock. According to its website, the group is a partnership of agriculture, business and labor groups that advocates for increased energy infrastructure and "energy independence". 

Stevens, who acknowledges working with both GAIN and MAIN, said the calls went out to about 200,000 Louisiana residents and about 16,000 stayed on to join the call.

He said ETP is not a member of GAIN, which is a 501(c)(4) organization.

Vicki Granado, a spokesperson for ETP, confirmed that the company is not a GAIN member.

"We were invited by GAIN to participate in two tele-town halls, which we gladly accepted. The calls presented us the opportunity to provide clear, accurate information to local residents about the Bayou Bridge pipeline project," said Granado, who said if invited, ETP would participate again.

Edward T. Walker, a professor of sociology at UCLA who studies the political activities of corporations and social movements, said the robo town hall is unusual.

"The robocall thing not new, but doing this type of thing as an expert town hall by phone is something I really haven't encountered very much," said Walker. He added that industries usually use astroturfing and other tactics when they feel they're under threat and facing a large amount of community resistance.

Walker, author of Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy, said he's found that roughly 40 percent of all Fortune 500 companies are on the client lists of at least one firm that works to garner favorable public opinion through astroturfing and techniques like the tele-town hall.

"It's not just DCI, there's a whole field of organizations that do this kind of thing and help to mobilize mass pubic support on behalf of industries, especially when they're involved in some sort of controversial activity," said Walker, the UCLA professor.

Granado and Stevens both refused to say whether DCI Group is working on behalf of ETP.

Louisiana residents on the call had no way of knowing of the potential relationship between the two, nor were they told during introductions that the Bayou Bridge pipeline is an ETP project.

ETP's senior vice president of engineering was introduced by Stevens as simply "Chris Sonneborn from the company constructing the pipeline."

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Categories: News

Why Young People Are Joining Unions Again

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 14:08
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This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.

At the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, rays of sunlight break through an unseasonably cold March, through the ordered, brutalist buildings that line Pennsylvania Avenue. Hundreds of thousands of people crowd the avenue, just as they have been crowding legislators' phone lines and email inboxes in recent weeks. On a stage strategically positioned in line with the Capitol building, 17-year-old Cameron Kasky, a Parkland shooting survivor, delivers this proclamation:

To the leaders, skeptics, and cynics who told us to sit down and stay silent, wait your turn: Welcome to the revolution. It is a powerful and peaceful one because it is of, by, and for the young people of this country. Since this movement began some people have asked me, do you think any change is going to come from this? Look around, we are the change. Our voices are powerful, and our votes matter. We hereby promise to fix the broken system we've been forced into and to create a better world for the generations to come. Don't worry, we've got this.

Kasky's statement was, of course, about guns. Seventeen of his classmates and teachers had been taken from him, and from their families, friends, and their own futures, five weeks earlier by a gunman who used an automatic weapon to kill 17 people in 6 minutes and 20 seconds. But they were also taken by a system -- a political system wherein a vast majority of Americans, and particularly young Americans, support policies to clamp down on gun deaths but politicians, bought off by the NRA, do not listen.

Young people are at a tipping point. They are frustrated by a system whose cracks were etched into place by preceding generations, but have only fully metastasized for theirs. They experience suffocating levels of student debt alongside declining wages and income equality while watching companies monopolize entire industries, and sometimes even nationwide elections. Representation -- actual representation -- feels more like theory than reality.

People are, finally, beginning to take notice of young people's activism to fix that system. However, many are mistaking the new wave of media coverage dedicated to young people's political activism for young people's newfound political activism. It's not that young people were ever politically dormant; it's just that their activism has existed in places where older generations aren't used to looking: on college campuses, like the Know Your IX movement and tuition equity campaigns for undocumented students, and inside activist movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #ByeAnita and #Occupy.

And now, increasingly, unions.

For the first time in decades, union membership is on the rise among young people. Historically, younger people have not been unionized, and their rates of union membership trail older adults by wide margins. But, just like the gun laws that are already being amended, that too is beginning to change.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in 2017, there were 262,000 new union members in the United States. Seventy-five percent of this increase came from young people (which EPI considers those aged 34 and under, but for the purposes of this article, broadly refers to the older subset of Generation Z and most Millennials, ages 16 to 35). Young people also hold the most favorable attitudes towards labor of any generation, and their support for political parties skews heavily towards those that support pro-worker policies (like standing against "right-to-work" laws), including the Democrats and, increasingly, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

But for some reason, unlike previous generations, young people's workplace organizing isn't seen as an integral part of their organizing, writ large. While plenty of people are documenting the rise of young people's union membership and plenty more describing young people's leadership in activist spaces, what's missing is the idea that these two phenomena are actually one: Young people are turning to outside outlets that allow them to exercise their politics in the wake of a political system that, by and large, does not.

***

In a piece for Jacobin Magazine, Micah Uetricht sketches out the ebbing relationship between democracy inside and outside the workplace, and, relatedly, the relationship between economic and political democracy. To Uetricht -- a sociology graduate student who focuses on labor, member of the DSA, and associate editor at Jacobin -- activism is activism, whether it takes place at the workplace or outside of it. "It's a relatively recent development that we think of what happens at work as some kind of separate sphere of our lives in general," he says. He adds: "Young people understand that and don't like living in a dictatorship in the place where they spend 8 or 10 hours of their day."

Uetricht experienced something similar at his first job out of college, when he worked as a cashier at an airport making minimum wage. He says he and his co-workers were treated as less than human on a daily basis, and they eventually decided to unionize, granting him a newfound sense of agency: "I had never felt as powerless as I did when I was a cashier making minimum wage. Conversely, I had never felt as powerful as I did when I joined with my co-workers, confronted my boss, and won."

That fact -- that unionization campaigns often center around not simply better wages or benefits, but a sense that your voice will be heard -- often goes misunderstood by those who are not connected to the labor movement. But for Uetricht, who went on to become a union organizer, the idea of worker voice, even if it's to voice complaints about stagnant pay or subpar health benefits, is not simply one benefit of unions; it is the benefit. "The thing that you learn immediately as an organizer," he tells me, "is that even in low-wage workplaces, the number one issue people have with their workplaces is not their low wages but a lack of respect."

A lack of respect is also primarily driving young people's frustration with the political system. When Kasky, the 17-year-old Parkland survivor, spoke at the March for Our Lives, he said "our voices are powerful, and our votes matter." He said that in contrast to the status quo, in which young people's voices are not seen as powerful, nor their votes. And, looking at recent history, it's not hard to understand why that might be Kasky's understanding of the status quo. Young people's votes were spurned by an electoral college that favors rural, sparse areas, disproportionately discounting the large numbers of young people who lived in cities in 2016. Their ideas of stronger restrictions on gunsreigning in big banks, and support for the rights of LGBTQ peopleimmigrantspeople of color, and people of varying religious views have been continually overpowered by older generations and special interests.

Seen through that lens, it's no wonder young people have found working inside the US political system ineffective, and, quite frankly, not worth their time. Instead, young people have redirected their activism toward different kinds of outlets, where their efforts may actually bring about tangible results. Outlets like unions.

What does this mean for the labor movement? A workplace is, at the most fundamental level, a microcosm of the political system. There are those who hold power, the bosses, and those who don't, the workers. Over time, the balance of power ebbs and flows; when unions are strong, the balance shifts more heavily to the workers, and when unions are weak, the balance favors the bosses. When unions are powerful, workers have something akin to a voice in the direction of their workplace. And when unions are at their most powerful, workers have something akin to a voice in the direction of their country, a counterbalance to special interest groups like ALEC or the US Chamber of Commerce.

***

Julia Ackerly is working to build unions up to that level. Now 27, she's worked on Democratic campaigns for most of her adult life: She worked as a field organizer and regional field director for the Bernie Sanders campaign in the 2016 primary elections, and then for Larry Krasner's bid to be Philadelphia's District Attorney (DA), a race that drew national attention for how Krasner sought to use the DA position to enact a progressive vision for the criminal justice system. Ackerly has always worked on campaigns that worked closely with organized labor. But she had never been in a union herself.

That changed when the Campaign Workers' Guild (CWG) formed. The idea behind the CWG is pretty simple: It hopes to unionize campaign staffers, who experience harsh working conditions where poor pay and benefits and long hours run rampant, justified by managers as sacrifices for an important cause. CWG is currently organizing campaigns one-by-one: Its first successful organizing campaign was that of Randy Bryce, the candidate hoping to win House Speaker Paul Ryan's Congressional seat, and it's organized 10 more campaigns since, for a total of 11 as of March 2018. But it ultimately hopes to organize entire parties' campaign staffs at once in the future.

Ackerly, who helps organize campaign staffs and is now a dues-paying member of CWG herself, says that having a collective ability to be heard and respected in the workplace is a "very motivating factor towards unionization campaigns." She singles out creating protocol and reporting structures for sexual harassment and discrimination as one of the biggest motivations staff members have for organizing. Which, tellingly, is also the one of the biggest activist movements dominating living room and water cooler conversations across the country as the #MeToo movement continues.

Young people dominate the junior staffs on campaigns and have also made up a significant portion of the driving force behind recently organized campaign staffs, according to Ackerly. Jake Johnston, the Vice President of Organizing for the Non-Profit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) (which includes some members of the TalkPoverty staff), has similarly seen young people take the lead at the organizations that have recently organized under NPEU, and at NPEU itself.

For Johnston, collective action has implicit ties to activism, writ large. "The reality is that our political system really has cut out a significant part of this country. I think there's clearly a rejection of the status quo, and yet there are so few avenues to try and change that," he says. "Whether it's joining the DSA, joining a union, joining an advocacy campaign, or joining an electoral campaign, people are trying to change that. Everyone needs an outlet for activism."

That's true for young people in particular. For far too long, they've been on the receiving end of an economic and political system that does not work for them, while being denied the opportunity to change that system.

Whether it's students like Cameron Kasky shouting about the NRA into a microphone that reverberates from the Capitol to the White House, young people like Julia Ackerly organizing an industry that has never been unionized before, or activists like Micah Uetricht organizing his own workplace, young people are refusing to take part in a political system that has consistently and methodically drowned out their voice. Instead, they've taken their voices elsewhere, to outlets like unions and activist movements where -- finally -- their voices are being heard.

Categories: News

People Have to Strengthen the Laws Protecting Our Water

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 14:03

This is how water rights work in this country: residents of Flint, Michigan, have been told that the state that poisoned their drinking water will no longer provide them free bottled water. They'll be going back to paying some $200 a month for unsafe water. At the same time, Michigan approved a permit letting the Nestlé Corporation pump more fresh water out of the Great Lakes Basin to bottle and sell at a profit. 

Water coming out of several faucets.(Photo: Pixabay)

Janine Jackson: It is impossible, really, not to connect two recent pieces of news: Residents of Flint, Michigan, have been told that the state that poisoned their drinking water will no longer provide them free bottled water. They'll be going back to paying some of the highest prices in the country, some $200 a month, for water that may still be making them sick. The Washington Post reports at least 12,000 homes in Flint still waiting for replacement of lead pipes.

At the same time, Michigan approved a permit letting the Nestlé Corporation pump more fresh water out of a well in the Great Lakes Basin to bottle and sell at a profit, more than half a million gallons a day, the right to which will cost Nestlé…wait for it…around $200 a year. And that won't increase, although the amount of water they are taking will -- by 60 percent.

This is, in fact, how water rights work in this country, but if it feels wrong to you, you are far from alone. What can be and what is being done? Joining us now to discuss this critical story is Peggy Case. She's president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. She joins us now by phone from near Traverse City. Welcome to CounterSpin, Peggy Case.

Peggy Case: Thank you.

This Nestlé in Michigan fight is a new fight for many people, but it's not for you. When news articles refer to the years of fight that Nestlé, the biggest food and beverage company in the world, has faced since they moved into Michigan, a lot of that fight has come from your group, hasn't it?

Yes, that's how our group was formed, actually, back in the year 2000, when we discovered that Nestlé was pumping 400 gallons per minute from a spring well in Mecosta County, Michigan. When they put up the bottle plant was when people realized they were even there. So our organization formed way back then to oppose it, because there were already damages showing up to a stream and a lake, and the environment was already being impacted with that level of withdrawals.

It took a nine-year court battle and a million dollars to win a case. It was a partial victory. We didn't get Nestlé out of there. They had to reduce their pumping by a half, down to 218 gallons per minute, and the judge ruled that anything more than that is damaging to the environment.

So that's a court precedent case that still stands on the books, and it's important to know that, because almost two years ago, Nestlé applied for a permit to increase their pumping at a well in Evart, Michigan, 20 miles down the road from where the original battle was, to 400 gallons per minute, the exact amount they were told they really couldn't take from Mecosta.

It's spring water, which is bottled as "Ice Mountain," and they were given an increase of 100 extra gallons per minute with no public comment, no chance for anybody to go through the proper procedure, and we think it really violated the existing water withdrawal laws. Then they tacked on another 150 when they applied for the 400 permit. So it gets very complicated after a while and your head starts to spin. But the bottom line is that Nestlé's wanting to take even more out of a stream that's already damaged. So of course we're contesting that again.

On April 2, Nestlé was granted the permit for 400 gallons per minute. Eighty thousand people sent in public comment. Out of those 80,000, only 75 thought Nestlé should pump and get that permit. The rest of them were all opposed to it. We were told by the Department of Environmental Quality that those comments don't matter, that they were following the rule of law, and they could grant the permit.

Now, we know they intended to grant it all along. So it depends on how you read the law. They read it in Nestlé's favor. We say that it can be read quite differently, can be read to show that that permit can't be delivered.

So there are several issues that are unresolved, that should have been resolved before the permit was issued, and one of them has to do with the township. The township denied a permit for a booster station, which is necessary for them to be able to increase their pumping to 400 gallons per minute, and so Nestlé took the township to court. The judge ruled in Nestlé's favor. The township voted unanimously, almost, to appeal that ruling. So that ruling is still sitting in limbo and is still a contested case, which means that the DEQ should not have granted a permit when there was a local issue that was unresolved.

So there are a number of issues that we are working on right now. We are going to contest the ruling, of course, that they could have the permit. That's the first step in the process.

Right. Right.

And I just wanted to say that I'm really glad that you started your comments out by mentioning Flint, because that's been really significant for us. We have been connected to the Flint battles over water from the beginning. We were invited to come and consult in Flint four years ago, when things first began to develop. We find it totally outrageous that Flint is still in the condition that it's in, and people are getting shut off from their water.

And you mentioned the high water bills. They're even higher than you suggested. Some people we know are paying $350 or $400 a month for water that they still can't drink.

Wow.

And at the same time, the water that the city claims is good water, now, people are being shut off from that water as well. It's not just that they're not delivering bottled water to people, they're also cutting people off at the tap, in the same way that they've been doing in Detroit now for a number of years. We think those issues, Detroit and Flint, are intimately related to what's going on with Ice Mountain.

Absolutely. Absolutely connected. And on another level of connection, Nestlé's spokesperson used to be, I'm not sure if she's still there, but it used to be a woman named Deborah Muchmore, who was the wife of Dennis Muchmore, Gov. Rick Snyder's chief of staff, who retired and then became a lobbyist. Meanwhile, the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, you've been funding yourselves largely with garage sales. I'm just trying to think about the forces opposed here.

Yes, yes. Debbie Muchmore's not with the governor, and neither's Dennis. They're not with the governor anymore. They're private lobbyists.

Yeah, he retired and became a lobbyist. Oh, they both are. OK.

Yeah, they both are gone. We won't be surprised when the governor, who's term-limited, is out of office in November, that he also becomes a lobbyist for a corporation like Nestlé. So it won't surprise us if that happens.

But we paid off our $1 million debt, as you say: garage sales, bake sales, pasty sales, and the donations of our members over quite a period of time. We are totally a grassroots organization. We have no paid staff. We are all volunteers, so it was definitely a very grassroots effort.

What goes on at the state level is just the opposite kind of thing. Before the Flint crisis, the state had cut Flint off of revenue-sharing money that could have been used to fix their infrastructure. They get money taken away from them. Nestlé gets profits given to them, in the form of free water. It's just completely unjust.

There is the public process thing, and there's the DEQ, as you mentioned, saying, "Yes, we did get these public comments that were overwhelmingly opposed to this," but they implied, not just that those just didn't matter, but that they were somehow legally prohibited from caring about this intense public opposition. I don't really understand that.

That's how they read the law, and they read it wrong. There are sections of the law -- and we're busy exploring those right now; we do have good legal counsel on our side -- that do, in fact, require the public comments. So why would you require it if it's irrelevant?

Right. There's not been a tremendous amount of coverage, but those stories that have existed, that are deeper, will mention that this has been a twisty road for Nestlé, and that in fact they were initially rejected by the state's water withdrawal assessment tool, that said, "You're going to harm streams, you're going to harm fish."

But Nestlé appealed that decision, and it's that appeal that is now being approved. So it's not as though it was always obvious, you know, there's no environmental impact, or no harm here.

Yeah, the water assessment tool, which they got scored a D on it -- that's the lowest grade you can get -- so they didn't pass that. So they go to the site-specific review, which is not site-specific at all. qIt's a computer model. It takes place in an office. They never visit the actual site to determine what's really going on there.

So in both cases, you're dealing with computer models; you're not dealing with reality. Whereas, we walk out and walk around in the woods and tromp around in the streams and the wetlands, and take reporters who are interested to look at the actual site where the streams are dried up, where Nestlé claims that water is pumping at 250 gallons per minute, and you're looking at a puddle that's one-foot wide and there's no water moving in it at all. They were given a lot of expert testimony, legal testimony, extensive, that was submitted as part of those 80,000 comments. They chose to ignore that as well.

I guess it's a question of, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" Because Nestlé's natural resources manager for Michigan says, "We never take out more than nature's bringing back in."

Yes, that's probably Arlene, right?

Yes.

Yes. We've gone to their dog-and-pony shows, which is what we call them, where they do their PR work. It's very fancy, charts and graphs, and they keep passing the same information out to people all the time. The other issue is that they create 3,000 plastic bottles -- I can't remember whether it's in an hour or what. So there's the plastic bottle issue as well. Another story.

It's really all sides of it, though, and the connection to Flint, and it all is of a piece. Absolutely. We can all see these connections. But it's also that people can see that this is an issue of whether water is a right, of whether corporations can take a vital public resource, because, as I said, this is the law of the land.

Yeah.

The law says if you can pump it and extract it, you can get it essentially for free, and sell it at a profit.

Well, that's only going to increase. That's only going to come to your state and your community. And yet the lesson seems to be that elected officials are not going to necessarily be on the public's side, and it's going to be down to people advocating for themselves. And I guess I would just ask you, what would you say to people who hear that now a company, Nestlé or another company, is coming to their community to pump their water out from under them?

Well, one of the things that has to happen is that people have to strengthen the laws that are supposed to be protecting the water. Because we do have the public trust doctrine in Michigan, which requires that the state of Michigan protect the water for all of us. And if that were actually honored, they wouldn't be able to come and take it and send it off in bottles elsewhere, and they wouldn't be allowed to destroy the environment.

In 2008, however, the state of Michigan weakened its laws a bit. They gave themselves the loophole to send it out as much as they wanted to, in small plastic bottles that end up in the Pacific Ocean. There's some pieces of that Safe Drinking Water Act that could be used by the government to protect the water, but they don't choose to use those pieces of the law.

So I would tell people, "Get those laws in place that actually make the government protect the water."

Particularly it's important that the state laws get strengthened, and that the people who are paying attention continue to put pressure on the various agencies to do it. Our agencies, like the Department of Environmental Quality, at the same time that they're not doing what they should be on this, they are being defunded themselves. So they don't have the resources to do most of the work that they should be doing anyway.

And the state legislature is busy trying to pass laws that would take away their right to even regulate anything. They want industry to sit on a board that oversees the regulations of themselves. So there's three bills in our legislature right now that are just horrible. So people need to contest those. They need to talk to their legislators, and make sure that don't let those pass through the legislature unnoticed. That kind of stuff.

And when the company says, "Oh, you know what, this new permit is going to call for unprecedented levels of monitoring and oversight"…

Hmm, hmm. And we're glad about that.

Right.

But we're saying that all these years, Nestlé's doing its own monitoring is the fox watching the chicken house. We're saying that that monitoring must be done by an independent agency, like the US Geological Survey. We're making that demand. It can't be Nestlé monitoring itself.

All right, then. We've been speaking with Peggy Case. She's president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. You can find them and follow their work online at SaveMIWater.org. Peggy Case, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you for having me.

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Categories: News

"A Complete Disaster": Noam Chomsky on Trump and the Future of US Politics

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 13:57

 MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)President Donald Trump speaks during a joint presser with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 18, 2018. (Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)

Just how bad are things with Trump in the White House? And what does having a racist, misogynist, xenophobic and erratic president who continues to enjoy unquestionable support from his base tell us about the state of US politics and the dangers to the future of democracy in the US and in the world? Noam Chomsky shares his thoughts on these and other related questions in an exclusive interview with Truthout.

 MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)President Donald Trump speaks during a joint presser with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 18, 2018. (Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)

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Just how bad are things with Donald Trump in the White House? And what does having a racist, misogynist, xenophobic and erratic president who continues to enjoy unquestionable support from his base tell us about the state of US politics and the dangers to the future of democracy in the US and in the world on the whole? Noam Chomsky shares his thoughts on these and other related questions in an exclusive interview with C. J. Polychroniou for Truthout.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, it's been already 14 months into Donald Trump's turbulent White House tenure, but sometimes we still need to pinch ourselves to make sure that it's not a nightmare that a racist, misogynist, homophobic man who apparently cares only about himself runs the world's most powerful nation. But, really, how bad is it having Trump in the White House?

Very bad. As Trump began his second year in office, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced their Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, citing increasing concerns over nuclear weapons and climate change. That's the closest it has been to terminal disaster since 1953, when the US and USSR exploded thermonuclear weapons. That was before the release of Trump's Nuclear Posture Review, which significantly increases the dangers by lowering the threshold for nuclear attack and by developing new weapons that increase the danger of terminal war.

On climate change, Trump is a complete disaster, along with the entire Republican leadership. Every candidate in the Republican primaries either denied that what is happening is happening or said ... we shouldn't do anything about it. And these attitudes infect the Republican base. Half of Republicans deny that global warming is taking place, while 70 percent say that whether it is or not, humans are not responsible. Such figures would be shocking anywhere, but are remarkably so in a developed country with unparalleled resources and easy access to information.

It is hard to find words to describe the fact that the most powerful country in world history is not only withdrawing from global efforts to address a truly existential threat, but is also dedicating itself to accelerating the race to disaster, all to put more dollars in overstuffed pockets. No less astounding is the limited attention paid to the phenomenon.

When we turn to matters of great though lesser import, the conclusion is the same: disaster. While Trump's antics occupy the attention of the media, his associates in Congress have been working intensively to advance the interests of their actual constituency -- extreme wealth and corporate power -- while dismantling what is of value to the general population and future generations. With justice, the Republican leadership regard the tax bill as their greatest triumph. Joseph Stiglitz rightly describes the triumph as "The US Donor Relief Act of 2017," a vast giveaway to their actual constituency -- and to themselves. As he points out, the Republican leaders "are stuffing themselves at the trough -- Trump, Kushner and many others in his administration are among the biggest winners -- thinking that this may be their last chance at such a feast." And "Après moi, le deluge" -- literally in this case.

The grand triumph brings an extra advantage. It explodes the deficit (a trademark of Republicans since Reagan), which means that they can move on to cut away at entitlements, as the chief architect, Paul Ryan, announced happily at once. The US already ranks near the bottom of the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries -- the 35 richer and more developed countries -- in social justice measures. The Republican triumph will sink it even lower. The tax scam is only the most prominent of the devices being implemented under the cover of Trump buffoonery to serve wealth and corporate power while harming the irrelevant population.

Many other policies are simply [unconscionable], such as Trump's initiative to have the Department of Homeland Security separate children, even infants, from their mothers in order to discourage immigration -- 700 families have been split in this fashion since October, a New York Times investigation found. Many of these families are fleeing from the murderous consequences of US policies: Honduras has been the main source of refugee flight since the US, almost alone, endorsed the military coup that ousted the elected president and the fraudulent election that followed, initiating a reign of terror.

We also must endure the sight of Trump wailing in terror because a caravan of victims reached Mexico, most hoping to settle there. Trump's suggestion that these victims are threatening the security of the US is reminiscent of Reagan strapping on his cowboy boots and calling a national emergency because Nicaraguan troops were a two days march from Texas, and about to overwhelm us. It's amazing that such performances do not evoke profound national embarrassment.

To the extent that politics is the art of the possible, would you say that Trump has been consistent so far with the promises he made to voters during the 2016 campaign?

In some cases, yes. He is fulfilling the wishes of the Evangelicals who are a large part of his voting base. He is greatly increasing the military budget, as he promised. ... Most of his promises are about as close to fulfillment as his commitment to "drain the swamp," which is now overflowing. [Scott] Pruitt's [Environmental Protection Agency] alone is a cesspool, though its dismantling of efforts to deal with the impact of climate change are far more serious than the wholesale robbery, which seems to be a Pruitt specialty from well before he was handed the wrecking ball.

We don't need Comey to tell us that Trump is morally unfit.

On trade, though the policies, insofar as they are coherent, are generally harmful, the rhetoric is not completely false. Thus it is true that China is using devices that violate World Trade Organization rules -- devices that were critical to the growth of the rich societies, from England to the US and beyond, and are now banned by the investor rights agreements mislabeled "free trade agreements." This is a textbook illustration of what economic historians call "kicking away the ladder": First we climb up, then we kick the ladder away so that you can't follow.

And Trump is right that the [North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)] should be revised. Some sensible proposals have been put forth by the partners in NAFTA. For example, Canada has proposed that the revised NAFTA should ban harsh US anti-labor laws, like the right-to-scrounge laws called "right-to-work" in contemporary Newspeak. These laws are soon to become federal policy, it seems, under the reactionary Roberts Court, which was made more extreme by [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell's shameful parliamentary maneuvers to prevent even consideration of Obama's nomination, opening the way to the appointment of Neil Gorsuch -- another gift to the far right.

The Canadian proposal was prominently reported in the major Canadian press, but, oddly, is missing from the discussions of NAFTA revision here, which keep to Trump proposals.

Allegations of collusion continue to haunt Donald Trump's presidency, primarily over his alleged ties to Russia and Putin, and former FBI Director James Comey said in a recent interview with ABC News that Trump is "morally unfit" to be president. What's your take on all this, and what does Trump's disrespect for law and the fact that his base is refusing to abandon him tell us about the current state of American democracy and US politics in general?

We don't need Comey to tell us that Trump is morally unfit. He made that abundantly clear in the primaries, if not before. The fact that the Oval Office is coming to resemble a schoolyard on a bad day may be obnoxious, but it doesn't rank high among the misdeeds of the administration, in my opinion. ... Same with his alleged ties to Russia and Putin. Much more serious is the clique that now surrounds him. It's a sad day when one has to hope that General [James] Mattis will keep the ... [rest] in check. The [John] Bolton appointment in particular should send shivers up the spine of any person.

As for Trump's base, they are indeed quite loyal. Most Trump voters were relatively affluent and probably are fairly satisfied with the ultra-reactionary policies. Another important segment was non-college-educated whites, a group that voted overwhelmingly for Trump (a 40 percent advantage). There is a close analysis of this group in the current (Spring 2018) issue of the Political Science Quarterly. It found that racism and sexism were far more significant factors in their vote than economic issues. If so, this group has little reason to object to the scene that is unfolding, and the same with the white Evangelicals who gave Trump 80 percent of their vote. Among justly angry, white, working-class Trump voters, many apparently enjoy watching him stick his thumb in the eyes of the hated elites even if he doesn't fufill his promises to [working-class voters], which many never believed in the first place, so some in-depth reporting indicates.

What all this tells us, yet again, is that the neoliberal programs that have concentrated wealth in a few hands while the majority stagnate or decline have also severely undermined functioning democracy by familiar mechanisms, leading to anger, contempt for the dominant centrist political forces and institutions, and often anti-social attitudes and behavior -- alongside of very promising popular reactions, like the remarkable [Bernie] Sanders phenomenon, [Jeremy] Corbyn in England and positive developments elsewhere as well.

Ryan, an influential architect of the Republican economic platform, announced that he is stepping down from Congress. Do you think his decision was motivated by the fear that a "blue wave" may be coming in November as a result of a growing backlash against Trump and Trumpism?

There is much talk about how this "admirable" figure, who bedazzled the media with fraudulent spreadsheets, wants to spend time with his family. Much more likely, I think, is that he decided to leave Congress because he had achieved his long-standing goals, particularly with the "Donor Relief Act of 2017" and the deficit cuts that open the way to sharp reduction of entitlements: health, social security, pensions -- whatever matters to the people beyond the very privileged. And perhaps he prefers to be out of town when it becomes too hard to conceal what's being done to the general population and someone will have to face the music.

With regard to foreign affairs, what do you consider to be the most menacing elements of Trump's handling of US foreign policy?

Trump inherited multiple crises. His own policies have been largely incoherent, but he has been consistent in some areas, primarily the Middle East. He has provided strong support for the Saudi war in Yemen, a major catastrophe, and is exulting in the huge arms sales to the dictatorship. Last December, UN agencies warned that the Saudi blockade of Yemen could lead to "one of the largest famines in modern times." Yemen already has the world's worst cholera outbreak, which is not under control. The Saudi blockade is hindering desperately needed imports of food, medicine and fuel.

"Make America great" means great at destroying, and that's where the greatness ends.

Apart from the human disaster it is creating, the Saudi dictatorship, always with firm US backing, seems intent on carrying forward the Taliban and ISIS projects of destroying precious antiquities. Reviewing the systematic Saudi destruction, the chair of Yemen's Organization of Antiquities and Museums charges that the attacks on 60 sites are "a conscious campaign to wreck Yemen's heritage and demoralize its citizens." Western experts agree that the destruction seems deliberate, using information provided by the [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] on cultural heritage sites to direct bombing attacks, with no military objective.

The US-led attack on ISIS in Raqqa destroyed the city, and nothing is being done to reconstruct or help the victims. Under the influence of [US-UN Ambassador] Nikki Haley, one of the more sinister (and, it seems, ambitious) figures in the administration, Trump has sharply cut funding to the [United Nations Relief and Works Agency], which barely keeps millions of Palestinian refugees alive. In general, "make America great" means great at destroying, and that's where the greatness ends. It's by no means entirely new, but is now raised to a higher level and becoming a matter of principle.

In May, Trump will presumably refuse to renew sanctions relief for Iran, as required by the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). That does not constitute formal withdrawal, though that's the likely effect. Even if the European signers formally persist, the consequences will be severe because of the central role of the US in the international financial system -- not to speak of the danger that their persistence might arouse the ire of the unpredictable Trump, who can do a great deal of damage if crossed. Effective withdrawal might provide an opening for the new national security adviser, Bolton, a genuine war criminal who publicly calls for bombing Iran, presumably in collaboration with Israel and with tacit Saudi approval. Consequences could be horrendous.

There is much fevered debate as to whether Iran might have violated the JCPOA, contrary to the firm conclusion of [the International Atomic Energy Agency] Director General Yukiya Amano on March 5, 2018, that "Iran is implementing its nuclear-related commitments." But we hear virtually nothing about US violations, though these have been clear enough. Thus the JCPOA commits the signers to support the successful implementation of the agreement, including in their public statements, and to refrain from any adverse effect on trade and economic relations with Iran that conflict with their commitments to successful implementation of the JCPOA. The US has been in flat violation of all of these commitments, which have serious consequences.

Unmentionable as always is the obvious way to alleviate whatever threat Iranian nuclear programs are imagined to pose: establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region. The way is clear. The proposal is strongly supported by Iran, the Arab states and the world generally. But there is an impediment. It has regularly been blocked by the US, for familiar reasons: Israel's nuclear weapons. Also ignored is that the US [and] UK have a special commitment to work for this goal, having committed themselves to it in the UN [Security Council] resolution they invoked in an effort to find some thread of justification for their invasion of Iraq.

Trumpism is one of many manifestations of the effects of the neoliberal policies of the past generation.

There is more to say about this troubled region, but there are crises elsewhere as well. One involves North Korea, and here there might be some rays of light. Trump has so far accepted the moves of the two Koreas toward improving relations, and has agreed to negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un that so far look promising. If these initiatives succeed, they might go as far as the September 2005 agreement in which North Korea pledged to abandon "all nuclear weapons and existing weapons programs." Unfortunately, the Bush administration immediately violated all of its commitments under the agreement, and North Korea proceeded with its nuclear weapons programs. We may hope that Trump will be willing to accept success in denuclearizing the peninsula and in further steps toward accommodation. And if he wants to brag about the achievement as a demonstration of his brilliance as a deal-maker, just fine.

This by no means exhausts the foreign policy issues that should be seriously addressed -- topics that would carry us far afield.

What's your overall sense about Trumpism? What is it really all about, and do you think Trumpism is showing us the future of right-wing politics in the US?

The Democratic Party is now split between the donor-oriented New Democrat managers and a growing activist social democratic base.

Trumpism is one of many manifestations of the effects of the neoliberal policies of the past generation. These have led to extreme concentration of wealth along with stagnation for the majority. There have been repeated crashes of the deregulated financial institutions, each worse than the last. Bursting bubbles have been followed by huge public bailouts for the perpetrators while the victims have been abandoned. Globalization has been designed to set working people throughout the world in competition with one another while private capital is lavished with benefits. Democratic institutions have eroded. As already mentioned, all of this has led to anger, bitterness, often desperation -- one remarkable effect is the increasing mortality among middle-age whites discovered by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, analyzed as "deaths of despair," a phenomenon unknown in functioning societies. While there are variations from place to place, some features are common. One is the decline of the centrist parties that have long dominated political life, as we see in election after election. In the US, in recent years, whenever candidates arose from the base in the Republican primaries, the established powers were able to crush them and impose their own choice: Mitt Romney, most recently. In 2016, for the first time they were unable to do so, but they quickly rallied to the winning candidate, who proved quite willing to front for the more brutal wing of the traditional party. The real surprise in the election was the Sanders campaign, which broke with a long tradition of pretty much bought elections, and was stopped only by machinations of the Obama-Clinton party managers. The Democratic Party is now split between the donor-oriented New Democrat managers and a growing activist social democratic base.

What all of this portends, worldwide, is far from clear. Though there are also significant signs of hope, some commentators have -- with good reason -- been quoting Gramsci's observation from his prison cell: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

Categories: News

Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 04:00

On March 31st the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate for the sixth time in 3 years and signaled its intention to raise rates twice more in 2018, aiming for a fed funds target of 3.5% by 2020. LIBOR (the London Interbank Offered Rate) has risen even faster than the fed funds rate, up to 2.3% from just 0.3% 2-1/2 years ago. LIBOR is set in London by private agreement of the biggest banks, and the interest on $3.5 trillion globally is linked to it, including $1.2 trillion in consumer mortgages.

Alarmed commentators warn that global debt levels have reached $233 trillion, more than three times global GDP; and that much of that debt is at variable rates pegged either to the Fed's interbank lending rate or to LIBOR. Raising rates further could push governments, businesses and homeowners over the edge. In its Global Financial Stability report in April 2017, the International Monetary Fund warned that projected interest rises could throw 22% of US corporations into default.

Then there is the US federal debt, which has more than doubled since the 2008 financial crisis, shooting up from $9.4 trillion in mid-2008 to over $21 trillion in April 2018. Adding to that debt burden, the Fed has announced that it will be dumping its government bonds acquired through quantitative easing at the rate of $600 billion annually. It will sell $2.7 trillion in federal securities at the rate of $50 billion monthly beginning in October. Along with a government budget deficit of $1.2 trillion, that's nearly $2 trillion in new government debt that will need financing annually.

If the Fed follows through with its plans, projections are that by 2027, US taxpayers will owe $1 trillion annually just in interest on the federal debt. That is enough to fund President Trump's original trillion dollar infrastructure plan every year. And it is a direct transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy investors holding most of the bonds. Where will this money come from? Even crippling taxes, wholesale privatization of public assets, and elimination of social services will not cover the bill.

With so much at stake, why is the Fed increasing interest rates and adding to government debt levels? Its proffered justifications don't pass the smell test.

"Faith-Based" Monetary Policy

In setting interest rates, the Fed relies on a policy tool called the "Phillips curve," which allegedly shows that as the economy nears full employment, prices rise. The presumption is that workers with good job prospects will demand higher wages, driving prices up. But the Phillips curve has proven virtually useless in predicting inflation, according to the Fed's own data. Former Fed Chairman Janet Yellen has admitted that the data fails to support the thesis, and so has Fed Governor Lael Brainard. Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari calls the continued reliance on the Phillips curve "faith-based" monetary policy. But the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which sets monetary policy, is undeterred.

"Full employment" is considered to be 4.7% unemployment. When unemployment drops below that, alarm bells sound and the Fed marches into action. The official unemployment figure ignores the great mass of discouraged unemployed who are no longer looking for work, and it includes people working part-time or well below capacity. But the Fed follows models and numbers, and as of April 2018, the official unemployment rate had dropped to 4.3%. Based on its Phillips curve projections, the FOMC is therefore taking steps to aggressively tighten the money supply.

The notion that shrinking the money supply will prevent inflation is based on another controversial model, the monetarist dictum that "inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon": inflation is always caused by "too much money chasing too few goods." That can happen, and it is called "demand-pull" inflation. But much more common historically is "cost-push" inflation: prices go up because producers' costs go up. And a major producer cost is the cost of borrowing money. Merchants and manufacturers must borrow in order to pay wages before their products are sold, to build factories, buy equipment and expand. Rather than lowering price inflation, the predictable result of increased interest rates will be to drive consumer prices up, slowing markets and increasing unemployment – another Great Recession. Increasing interest rates is supposed to cool an "overheated" economy by slowing loan growth, but lending is not growing today. Economist Steve Keen has shown that at about 150% private debt to GDP, countries and their populations do not take on more debt. Rather, they pay down their debts, contracting the money supply; and that is where we are now.

The Fed's reliance on the Phillips curve does not withstand scrutiny. But rather than abandoning the model, the Fed cites "transitory factors" to explain away inconsistencies in the data. In a December 2017 article in The Hill, Tate Lacey observed that the Fed has been using this excuse ever since 2012, citing one "transitory factor" after another, from temporary movements in oil prices, to declining import prices and dollar strength, to falling energy prices, to changes in wireless plans and prescription drugs. The excuse is wearing thin.

The Fed also claims that the effects of its monetary policies lag behind the reported data, making the current rate hikes necessary to prevent problems in the future. But as Lacey observes, GDP is not a lagging indicator, and it shows that the Fed's policy is failing. Over the last two years, leading up to and continuing through the Fed's tightening cycle, nominal GDP growth averaged just over 3%; while in the two prior years, nominal GDP grew at more than 4%. Thus "the most reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy, nominal GDP, is already showing the contractionary impact of the Fed's policy decisions," says Lacey, "signaling that its plan will result in further monetary tightening, or worse, even recession."

Follow the Money 

If the Phillips curve, the inflation rate and loan growth don't explain the push for higher interest rates, what does? The answer was suggested in an April 12th Bloomberg article by Yalman Onaran, titled "Surging LIBOR, Once a Red Flag, Is Now a Cash Machine for Banks."  He wrote:

The largest U.S. lenders could each make at least $1 billion in additional pretax profit in 2018 from a jump in the London interbank offered rate for dollars, based on data disclosed by the companies. That's because customers who take out loans are forced to pay more as Libor rises while the banks' own cost of credit has mostly held steady.

During the 2008 crisis, high LIBOR rates meant capital markets were frozen, since the banks' borrowing rates were too high for them to turn a profit. But US banks are not dependent on the short-term overseas markets the way they were a decade ago. They are funding much of their operations through deposits, and the average rate paid by the largest US banks on their deposits climbed only about 0.1% last year, despite a 0.75% rise in the fed funds rate. Most banks don't reveal how much of their lending is at variable rates or is indexed to LIBOR, but Oneran comments:

JPMorgan Chase & Co., the biggest U.S. bank, said in its 2017 annual report that $122 billion of wholesale loans were at variable rates. Assuming those were all indexed to Libor, the 1.19 percentage-point increase in the rate in the past year would mean $1.45 billion in additional income.

Raising the fed funds rate can be the same sort of cash cow for US banks. According to a December 2016 Wall Street Journal article titled "Banks' Interest-Rate Dreams Coming True":

While struggling with ultralow interest rates, major banks have also been publishing regular updates on how well they would do if interest rates suddenly surged upward. . . . Bank of America . . . says a 1-percentage-point rise in short-term rates would add $3.29 billion. . . . [A] back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests an incremental $2.9 billion of extra pretax income in 2017, or 11.5% of the bank's expected 2016 pretax profit . . . .

As observed in an April 12 article on Seeking Alpha:

About half of mortgages are . . . adjusting rate mortgages [ARMs] with trigger points that allow for automatic rate increases, often at much more than the official rate rise. . . .

One can see why the financial sector is keen for rate rises as they have mined the economy with exploding rate loans and need the consumer to get caught in the minefield.

Even a modest rise in interest rates will send large flows of money to the banking sector. This will be cost-push inflationary as finance is a part of almost everything we do, and the cost of business and living will rise because of it for no gain.

Cost-push inflation will drive up the Consumer Price Index, ostensibly justifying further increases in the interest rate, in a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the FOMC will say, "We tried – we just couldn't keep up with the CPI."

A Closer Look at the FOMC

The FOMC is composed of the Federal Reserve's seven-member Board of Governors, the president of the New York Fed, and four presidents from the other 11 Federal Reserve Banks on a rotating basis. All 12 Federal Reserve Banks are corporations, the stock of which is 100% owned by the banks in their districts; and New York is the district of Wall Street. The Board of Governors currently has four vacancies, leaving the member banks in majority control of the FOMC. Wall Street calls the shots; and Wall Street stands to make a bundle off rising interest rates.

The Federal Reserve calls itself "independent," but it is independent only of government. It marches to the drums of the banks that are its private owners. To prevent another Great Recession or Great Depression, Congress needs to amend the Federal Reserve Act, nationalize the Fed, and turn it into a public utility, one that is responsive to the needs of the public and the economy.

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Categories: News

As Cuba Gains a New President, Raúl Castro Steps Back, Not Down, From Power

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 04:00

For the first time since the Cuban revolution toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista, a president who does not have the last name Castro has taken power. Miguel Díaz-Canel was sworn in as president last Thursday. He succeeds Raúl Castro, who served two consecutive 5-year terms in office. Castro is now 86 years old and will remain head of the Communist Party. Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raúl in 2008 while his health deteriorated, and died in 2016. Thursday's session was held on the 57th anniversary of Cuba's 1961 defeat of a CIA-backed Cuban exile invasion known as the Bay of Pigs. Díaz-Canel began his term with a promise to defend the socialist revolution led by the Castro brothers. We speak to Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

Activists Demand Release of Manuel Duran, Prominent Latino Journalist in Memphis Jailed by ICE

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 04:00

Immigrants rights activists are demanding the release of Manuel Duran, a prominent Latino journalist in Memphis who has been in ICE custody since early April. Duran was detained by immigration officials after he was arrested while covering a protest against immigrant detention outside a county jail. Duran, who was born in El Salvador, is a well-known reporter on Spanish radio stations in Memphis. He also runs the online site Memphis Noticias. Duran issued a statement while detained about the conditions in the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana, where he is being held. He writes, "Through this experience I have learned first hand details about the treatment our immigrants receive before they are deported. How they keep the lights on day and night and you have to sleep with a towel over your eyes. How they make you lie in bed for 45 minutes, in what seems to be at random after roll calling, and you cannot use the phone or the bathroom during that time."

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

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