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"Tom Price’s Revenge: HHS Makes Discriminating Against Reproductive Rights Central To Its Mission"

Commondreams - Mon, 10/16/2017 - 08:23
National Organization for Women (NOW)

Donald Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has made turning back the clock on women’s reproductive rights central to its new mission.

Categories: Latest News

Out of Control: A Brief History of Neoliberal Deregulation in the USA

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00

Neoliberalism makes the lower and middle classes poorer, empowers people like Trump and makes the world less safe. But what is it, and who is responsible? In his new book, President Trump, Inc., T.J. Coles examines the development of the neoliberal policies that have led us to the era of Trump. Policies like NAFTA and the Economic Recovery Tax Act perpetuated deregulation and wealth inequality throughout the Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations. 

Then-Governor Ronald Regan speaks on December 5, 1968. He later went on to become president of the United States, ushering in a severe era of neoliberal economic policy that has continued to this day. (Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images)   You'll never see a paywall at Truthout and we'll never artificially restrict your access to the news. Can you pitch in to help keep it that way? We rely on our readers to keep us online, so make a one-time or monthly donation today!

Neoliberalism makes the lower and middle classes poorer, empowers people like Trump and makes the world less safe. But what is it, and who is responsible? This article is excerpted from President Trump, Inc. (2017, Clairview Books).

In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration pushed to eliminate what neoliberal advocates call "needless barriers to competition." This was particularly true of the financial sector, where restrictions on local bank branches, prices for deposits (so-called regulation Q) and compartmentalization (i.e., allowing the interconnection of commercial, savings and insurance) were lifted.

Experts Campbell and Bakir identify four "pre-neoliberal attacks," which transformed the US economy into a neoliberal one:      

1) Bank holding companies were established as a way of circumventing the McFadden Act 1927, which restricted the geographical competition of banks. Until the 1970s, the majority of America's 14,000 banks were single units.        

2) Regulation Q meant that banks had to find creative ways of using money market instruments to finance businesses. New York banks in particular transformed into highly liquid markets to attract corporate customers. Negotiable Certificates of Deposit were issued to undermine regulation Q. The Money Market Mutual Funds, introduced in 1971, streamlined the process. They expanded the liquid secondary business markets from $3bn in 1976 to $80bn in 1980, then to $230bn in 1982. Most of this was worthless cash. 

3) The credit contractions of 1966-70 describe a period in which European banks essentially laundered US money to allow them to avoid Q-restrictions. By 1975, Euromarket loans had exploded from $25bn in 1968 to $130bn. 

4) Bank holding companies were also used to undermine financial regulations, particularly the rules on compartmentalization. A 1973 Congressional report found that bank holding companies were "act[ing] as investment advisors to real estate investment trusts and mutual trusts" by leasing personal and real property, providing services (including bookkeeping and data processing) and "operating insurance agencies."

Things were getting messy and more volatile.   

The Carter-Reagan Years

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that banks could export state usury laws. This led to the elimination of usury rate ceilings in several states and benefited bubble markets: liquidity firms and issuers of credit cards, especially Citibank.   

In 1980, President Carter signed the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act, which increased deposit insurance from $40,000 to $100,000. The Act empowered savings and loan companies (S&Ls) and led to the crisis of the 1980s. S&Ls specialize in mortgage and real estate lending. The Act also phased-out interest rate ceilings on deposit accounts. 

"Under Ronald Reagan we had the best corporate tax rate in the industrialized world," writes Donald Trump in his book, Great Again (2015, p. 155). Ronald Reagan also oversaw major deregulations of the financial sector. Economists Diamond and Dybvig write: "In the 1950s and 1960s the banking industry was a symbol of stability. By contrast, recent years have seen the greatest frequency of bank failures since the Great Depression."       

In 1979, the Fed doubled interest rates to reduce inflation. As a result, savings and loan (S&L) associations issued their customers fixed-interest loans at lower rates than the borrowing rate. This led to mass insolvency among S&L companies, which failed to attract capital. In 1981, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board decided to allow S&Ls to get away with lax accounting procedures. This led to major fraud. The Board was then decentralized to oversee banks and S&Ls at the regional level, which weakened its regulatory power. The Federal Deposit Insurance Cooperation noted that the Board was so influenced by financial lobbyists that it was essentially a "doormat[...] of financial regulation."        

The Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act 1982 reduced the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's oversight and introduced restrictions on minimum stock ownership. Deregulation also allowed S&Ls to adjust mortgage rates and expand lending practices. In a move that essentially provided S&Ls with taxpayer coverage, S&Ls switched from state to federal charters.      

New accounts were opened to allow companies to compete with Money Market Mutual Funds, which are short-term bond holders. "Nearly every state … still had strict usury laws on their books, but banks were able to charge any interest they wanted nationwide," writes Matthew Sherman of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Under Garn-St. Germain, S&Ls were allowed to act more like banks and less like specialized mortgage lenders.

Savings & Loan Crisis Continues

By 1983, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation held only $6.3bn in reserves to rescue institutions like S&Ls, yet S&Ls were already $25bn in debt. S&L portfolios shifted away from home mortgage loans to risky real estate ventures, like condominiums. By 1986, S&L home mortgage assets had shrunk from 78% to 56%.

A bubble was blown by S&Ls issuing credit cards, lending up to 20% of their assets, investing up to another 20% in real estate and writing limitless cheques in a process called negotiable order of withdrawal accounts. Congress then passed the Economic Recovery Tax Act 1981, which allowed S&Ls to sell mortgage loans and offset losses against tax for a decade. Wall Street bought a load of bad S&L loans, some up to 60% of their value, and bundled them as taxpayer-backed loans through guarantees by the banks Fannie Mae, Ginnie Mae and Freddie Mac. By 1986, the bonds were bought by S&Ls for $150bn.        

In three years (1982-85), S&L assets grew by 56%, signalling a crash. S&Ls started making riskier and riskier investments as deregulation allowed them to hold certificates of deposit (i.e., federally-insured savings) at high interest rates. In addition, individual bankers were responsible for a large number of frauds and scams. Between 1986 and 1995, nearly a third of America's 3,234 savings and loan associations crumbled. By 1989, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation closed or resolved 296 organizations, when it was replaced by the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC). Up to 1995, the RTC closed or resolved 747 institutions. The taxpayer forked out $100bn.

The Clinton Years

The final nail in the regulatory coffin was the Bill Clinton administration (1993-2001). Clinton repealed laws and prevented government intervention in speculative markets, until they collapsed. These deregulations built upon the Nixon-Reagan era and ultimately contributed to the Crash of 2007, the Crisis of 2008 and the ongoing Recession.     

Clinton's government approved NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement; a lengthy legal text between the governments of America, Canada and Mexico. It was drafted in secret and in opposition to the labour unions, which didn't even get to see a draft copy until it was too late. NAFTA is the very symbol of "free trade" and neoliberal globalization. It created a customs union between the three signatories and eliminated barriers to trade. This was good for consumers because prices went down. It was bad for American factory workers because US companies not only relocated to Mexico, where they enjoyed cheaper labour and lower health and safety standards, but could also threaten to offshore as a way of intimidating unions.        

NAFTA was devastating for Mexican farmers who could not compete with huge imports of mechanized American products. NAFTA is in part why so many Mexicans are seeking work in the US. NAFTA is also bad for Canada's environment. NAFTA provisions allowed signatories to be sued for interfering with corporate profits. Under Chapter 11, Canada became the world's most sued nation by corporations (mostly American) which challenged various environmental laws introduced by the Canadian government as threats to their profits.      

Donald Trump has been very critical of NAFTA, threatening to renegotiate to get a better deal for America -- meaning its corporations -- or else withdraw from the treaty. Yet NAFTA has its origins in the Reagan administration. A North American Accord was proposed in 1979 by the Republican Ronald Reagan shortly before his taking office as President. The Democrats in Congress voted against the Accord until 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected. Under Bush I in the 1980s and early 1990s, the US had already liberalized the Mexico peso in exchange for providing Mexico with loans. Mexico was in no position to argue.  

A report by Cornell University notes that in the US, union membership had declined from over 50% in the 1950s to 12% by the 1990s, due in large measure to aggressive anti-union laws, policies, and practices. "US workers, trade unions and their allies … mounted a strong campaign of opposition to NAFTA." This was due in part to Clinton's refusal to include a strong Social Charter. The Citizens Trade Campaign (sic) and Alliance for Responsible Trade were formed by concerned citizens.

Despite their efforts, NAFTA was approved by Congress on a vote of 234 to 200. Unions were given almost no time to read the huge document. Despite this, they managed to write a critical report which was largely ignored by Congress.

Unhappily Ever NAFTA

According to a report by the US Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA cost American workers 700,000 jobs, many of which were moved to Mexico. California, Michigan and Texas were the hardest hit. Surviving sectors saw a decrease in wages and benefits, with bosses using the threat of off-shoring to Mexico as a way of driving down labour costs and unionization. NAFTA was a big contributor to Mexican migration to the US. 

The EPI report goes on to note that "several million Mexican workers and families" were adversely affected in the agricultural and small business sectors by imports of cheaper US goods. "[T]he dramatic increase in undocumented workers flowing into the US labor market … put further downward pressure on US wages." The report concludes that NAFTA was a "template" for a world trading order "in which the benefits would flow to capital and costs to labor." 

In 1994, Clinton signed the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act, which eliminated restrictions on interstate banking and branching. Mergers increased by 27% in an eight-year period. In 1996, the Supreme Court eliminated some of the limits on late fees for credit card payments (Smiley vs. Citibank). The Court overruled state regulations and late fees jumped from $5 to $40.        

The biggest merger took place in 1998, when the Fed approved the Citicorp-Travelers merger, which allowed the liquidity firm Citicorp and the insurance giant Travelers to create the biggest financial institution to date. This put America well on the way to having an economy monopolized by a few financial institutions.

In 1999, Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act which repealed Glass-Steagall, the benchmark of financial regulation. The repeal of Glass-Steagall was supported by Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin (ex-Citigroup and later Goldman Sachs) and Lawrence Summers. The Act allowed the actions of banks, securities and insurance companies to merge for the first time since the 1930s.

In 2000, Clinton signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which prevented the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from regulating most of the financial transactions known as derivatives. Derivatives can become so complicated and cause so many financial institutions -- asset firms, banks, insurers, mutuals, trusts -- to suffer, that multibillionaire hedge fund CEO Warren Buffett famously describes them as "financial weapons of mass destruction."

The head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Brooksley Born, warned about the risks of unregulated derivative markets. It has been alleged by various economists that Lawrence Summers personally intervened to prevent Born from acting on her concerns. The Act was passed by Congress without objection because it was sneaked through as an attachment to an 11,000-page spending bill. The derivatives market exploded from $106tr in 2001 to $531tr by 2008, when the market -- triggered by rising oil prices and the housing collapse -- finally imploded.

Copyright (2017) by T.J. Coles. Not to be reproduced without permission of the publisher, Clairview Books. 

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Scientist Daniel Swain on "Unprecedented Climate Conditions" Contributing to Deadly California Wildfires

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00

In California, at least 40 people have died, hundreds are missing, and thousands of homes have been destroyed by uncontrollable wildfires. More than 11,000 firefighters are battling the wildfires, with the support of hundreds of fire engines and dozens of helicopters and airplanes. Many of the firefighters are prisoners, who are working for as little as $1 a day. Among the victims of the wildfires were elderly residents of Sonoma County, where authorities say their bodies were so charred, the only way to identify some of them was by the serial numbers on artificial joints or other medical devices. We speak with Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and author of Weather West, the California Weather Blog.


AMY GOODMAN: "Inferno" by Ivan Karamazov, a musician from Sonoma County who sent us that song from Northern California. This is Democracy Now! I'm Amy Goodman, as we go to California, where raging wildfires fueled by -- fires have raged at least -- have killed at least 40 people, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and scorched more than 200,000 acres -- roughly the size of New York City. The fires are now the deadliest in California since record keeping began. At least 100,000 people have been forced to evacuate, with about 75,000 still displaced. Some residents had to flee for their lives as drought conditions and powerful, erratic winds have contributed to the explosive spread of fires. This is Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott.

FIRE CHIEF KEN PIMLOTT: We are still impacted by five years of drought. With the significant rain that we had last winter, those effects are gone of that moisture, and we are literally looking at explosive vegetation. These fires are burning actively during the day and at night, when one would expect a fire to subside. And make no mistake: This is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 11,000 firefighters are battling the wildfires, with the support of hundreds of fire engines, dozens of helicopters and planes. Many of the firefighters are prisoners, who are working for as little as a dollar a day. Among the victims of the wildfires were elderly residents of Sonoma County, where authorities say their bodies were so charred, the only way to identify some of them was by the serial numbers on artificial joints or other medical devices. The fires have also contributed to a housing crisis, leaving thousands homeless in neighborhoods of California where rental prices were already sky-high before the blazes.

For more, we go to California, where we're joined by two guests. In Los Angeles, Daniel Swain joins us, climate scientist at UCLA, author of Weather West, the California Weather Blog. And via Democracy Now! video stream, we're joined by Jan Hoyman, an artist who had to flee her home to escape the fire in Mendocino County last week.

Let's go right now to Los Angeles, where we're joined by Daniel Swain. Talk about the fires and whether you believe there's a connection to climate change.

DANIEL SWAIN: Well, thanks for having me.

The scope of the wildfires that we've been seeing over the past week or so in Northern California is really kind of sobering. As you mentioned, I think these fires have the highest death toll and the highest number of structures burned of any series of fires in California history. And California does have a long history of deadly and destructive wildfires. And the fires we've seen this week have -- bear some similarities to the historical fires that have caused big problems in the past, which is the presence of these very strong and dry land-to-sea winds, known locally as the Diablo winds. And when these winds blow -- the autumn tends to be the time of year when they occur -- they can cause existing fires to spread very, very quickly -- in some cases, I think, faster than people have been able to outrun them, unfortunately.

And the climate conditions over the past several months in California have been, in some ways, unprecedented. California has experienced its record warmest summer, which comes immediately on the heels of what was quite a wet winter, actually. And counterintuitively, that sequence, that transition from very wet winter to record hot summer, may have actually contributed, to a significant degree, to the fire risks that we've been seeing, by increasing the amount of grass and dry brush that grew during the winter and spring, and then leading to an unprecedented amount of vegetation drying over the past several months.

AMY GOODMAN: There are also wildfires raging in Spain and Portugal. What is the connection?

DANIEL SWAIN: Well, one of the interesting things about all these locations is they tend to have similar climates. They have what are known as Mediterranean climates. And from a fire perspective, that's important because these regions tend to have long, dry summers, even under natural climate conditions. The challenging part is that, recently, those summers have become longer and drier. And the fire season in many of these parts of the world, that were already susceptible to wildfire, are experiencing longer burning seasons and hotter, drier summers.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how wildfires should be dealt with in the future and what can be the approach to climate change that can make a difference here?

DANIEL SWAIN: Well, you know, wildfire and global warming sort of represents an interesting example of a natural hazard that, in places like California or, really, anywhere with a Mediterranean climate with high fire risk, where there is a significant degree of pre-existing risk, that people who live in these regions and people who plan, do hazard planning in these regions, are well aware of. But the warming temperatures aggravate this existing risk and, in some cases, make it considerably worse than it would have been otherwise. And so, you know, in some ways, the same sorts of adaptations that we make to wildfires, in general, will still apply to the wildfires of the future. That may include being careful where we build our homes in urban areas and, you know, thinking more carefully about what we do and how we manage fires once they occur.

But on the bigger scale, the changes in climate that we're experiencing are largely due to the human emission of greenhouse gases. And we expect warming to continue for as long as we continue to emit those greenhouse gases. And so, there's both a challenge and an opportunity here, where if we choose to reduce and eventually to eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions, we will avert much of the warming, much of the increased risk of extreme events like wildfires that otherwise would have occurred. And right now we're starting to see signs of heading in that trajectory, at least internationally, but we're still not quite where we need to be, to be on the right track to eventually level off that risk.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Democracy Now! spoke with Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. I asked him about the failure of network TV meteorologists to make the connection between extreme weather and climate change.

PARK WILLIAMS: I think it's because the term "global warming" and the term "climate change" have been politicized. But in the circles that I work with, with real climatologists who are working on these issues every day, there is no hesitation to use those terms. As you put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the globe warms, whether it's the Earth or another planet. It's just the law of physics. And so, it is surprising to see trained meteorologists on TV steer away from those terms.

AMY GOODMAN: That's climate scientist Park Williams.

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"Stop the Unconstitutional War in Yemen": Opposition Grows to US-Backed War and Blockade

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00

The US-backed, Saudi-led war and naval blockade in Yemen has sparked a cholera epidemic that has become the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern world history. There are expected to be a million cases of cholera in Yemen by the end of the year, with at least 600,000 children likely to be affected. The US has been a major backer of the Saudi-led war. But in Washington, opposition to the US support for the Saudi-led war is growing. Lawmakers recently introduced a constitutional resolution to withdraw all US support for the war. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Congressmembers Ro Khanna, Walter Jones and Mark Pocan wrote that they introduced the resolution "in order to help put an end to the suffering of a country approaching 'a famine of biblical proportions.' … We believe that the American people, if presented with the facts of this conflict, will oppose the use of their tax dollars to bomb and starve civilians." We speak with Ro Khanna, Democratic congress member from California.


AMY GOODMAN: We begin today's show in Yemen, where the US-backed, Saudi-led war and naval blockade has sparked a cholera epidemic that's become the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern world history. There are expected to be a million cases of cholera in Yemen by the end of the year, with at least 600,000 children likely to be affected. This is UNICEF's Middle East regional director, Geert Cappelaere.

GEERT CAPPELAERE: Every day we have at least 5,000 to 10,000 newly reported cases throughout the country. That's unprecedented. But that requires also an unprecedented, massive response from the authorities here, but also from the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: The ongoing US-backed, Saudi-led bombing campaign has killed more than 10,000 civilians, sparked the cholera epidemic by destroying Yemen's health, water and sanitation systems, and exacerbated a famine that's left 7 million on the brink of starvation. The Saudi naval blockade has prevented food and medicine from reaching Yemeni civilians.

Saudi Arabia launched its offensive in 2015 to target Houthi rebels currently allied with longtime former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. The US has been a major backer of the Saudi-led war. Earlier this year, the Senate voted 53 to 47 to approve the sale of $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. The vote came just weeks after President Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia in his first foreign trip abroad as president.

But in Washington, opposition to the US support for the Saudi-led war is growing. A surprising number of lawmakers voted against the $500 million weapons deal earlier this year. And now lawmakers have introduced a constitutional resolution to withdraw all US support for the war. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, California Congressmember Ro Khanna, North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones,and Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan write they introduced the resolution, quote, "in order to help put an end to the suffering of a country approaching 'a famine of biblical proportions.' … We believe that the American people, if presented with the facts of this conflict, will oppose the use of their tax dollars to bomb and starve civilians," unquote.

Well, to talk more about opposition to the US-backed war in Yemen, we go to Palo Alto, California, to speak with Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California, co-author of that New York Times piece headlined "Stop the Unconstitutional War in Yemen."

Congressmember Khanna, welcome to Democracy Now! What are you demanding right now? Explain the scope, the gravity of the crisis in Yemen.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, thank you for calling attention to this issue, because it needs far more attention in the media. As you mentioned, there is a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. There is an outbreak of cholera of unprecedented numbers, almost a million people who are going to be affected, a famine of a nearly 7 million Yemenis. Citizens aren't getting basic food. They aren't getting sanitation. And it's because of the Saudi campaign. And, unfortunately, we have been aiding Saudi Arabia. We have been fueling the Saudi -- refueling Saudi planes. We've been assisting Saudi Arabia with targeting. And none of this has been approved by the United States Congress. So we invoked the War Powers Resolution, which says, very simply, Congress needs to vote on our actions in Yemen. And we hope both Republicans and Democrats will vote to stop our assistance to Saudi Arabia in a campaign that has violated human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly would that mean? Stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

REP. RO KHANNA: That would mean, very clearly, that we should not be, in any way, refueling Saudi planes. If we were -- if we stop refueling these Saudi planes, it would make it much harder for Saudi Arabia to bomb civilians in Yemen. It means we should stop coordinating with Saudi Arabia in targeting any civilians. Now, I asked Secretary Mattis, on the House Armed Services Committee, whether we were still doing these things, and he said that we are not. But up 'til recent reports, there was activity of our refueling or our assisting in targeting. And we want to make it very, very clear, going forward, that this should not continue. And that's what this resolution would do.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, a UN report said 683 children in Yemen were killed or injured by the Saudi-led coalition in 2016. Amnesty International and other rights groups criticized the UN report for underplaying the role of the Saudi-led coalition in human rights violations in Yemen, while Saudi Arabia rejected the findings as "inaccurate and misleading." This is Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al-Mouallimi.

ABDALLAH AL-MOUALLIMI: We exercise the maximum degree of care and precaution to avoid civilian harm. The regrettable effects of this conflict are a direct result of the Houthi and forces loyal to former President Saleh, use of immoral and illegal actions that put the civilian population at risk, including using children as human shields, and their continued grave violations in this regard with impunity and no accountability. These heinous acts by the Houthis and their allies are committed to advance their goals and objectives in complete disregard to the sanctity of human life. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the coalition reaffirm that we are taking important measures to protect civilians during all military operations, to end the suffering of the Yemeni people and minimize humanitarian cost.

AMY GOODMAN: That's the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations. Your response to this, Congressman Khanna?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it's propaganda. And every human rights group that has looked at this knows that the Saudis have been indiscriminate in some of the bombing of civilians. Look, the Houthi rebels aren't of clean hands, and they're not blameless in the conflict. But the Saudis have made this argument that most of the famine and cholera are in areas that the Houthis control. And that's just false and misleading, because the reality is, yes, the Houthis may be controlling those areas, but the reason that the famine is taking place is because the Saudis aren't allowing food or medicine to go in there, and the Saudis are bombing those areas.

So, what we're saying is the United States, one, has no stake in helping Saudi Arabia get another regime in. It's a proxy war there with Iran. And what we need is a diplomatic solution and humanitarian assistance. And we certainly shouldn't be picking sides and aiding Saudi Arabia in their bombings.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the extent of US military involvement in the war in Yemen. This is the former deputy director of the CIA, Michael Morell, speaking on the Charlie Roseshow last month.

MICHAEL MORELL: As we sit here and speak, there are US Special Forces on the ground in Yemen. They were put there by the Trump administration to support what the Saudis and the Emiratis are doing there. That is supporting our allies, and it is pushing back on what the Iranians are trying to achieve in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: So that's the former deputy director of the CIA, Michael Morell, saying there are US Special Forces on the ground in Yemen. Congressman Khanna, can you comment on this? What's the role of these Special Forces there?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, if you talk to military leaders, they will tell you that some of our forces there are engaged in counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda. And that's why our resolution makes it very clear. Actually, the resolution does nothing to restrict any potential counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda, but what it says is we can't have any of our military forces or Special Forces coordinating with Saudi Arabia in a civil war to try to overthrow the Houthi rebels. And Saudi Arabia is actually aligned with al-Qaeda in this.

What we see here is the United States taking a Saudi side as a counter to Iran. This type of balance-of-power calculations have gotten us in trouble in the past. And my perspective, and some of my colleagues', is our first principle should be "Do no harm," to have greater restraint in our foreign policy, not to try to pick winners and losers or side with one foreign power over another, where we've had a history of actually doing more harm in the Middle East and in the greater world.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Khanna, your New York Times op-ed headline is "Stop the Unconstitutional War in Yemen." It begins, "Imagine that the entire population of Washington State -- 7.3 million people -- were on the brink of starvation, with the port city of Seattle under a naval and aerial blockade, leaving it unable to receive and distribute countless tons of food and aid that sit waiting offshore." You go on to say, "This nightmare scenario is akin to the obscene reality occurring in the Middle East's poorest country, Yemen, at the hand of the region's richest, Saudi Arabia, with unyielding [United States military support] that Congress has not authorized and that therefore violates the Constitution." President Trump's first foreign trip anywhere abroad was to Saudi Arabia. Of course, that followed President Obama, who went there a number of times -- I think four times. Can you talk about this relationship? One of the closest allies of the United States is Saudi Arabia?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, we need to reorient this relationship. And Senator Bernie Sanders gave a speech recently talking about that. And the question is: Do human rights matter? Are we going to stand up for basic human rights and basic values? And in the past, the United States has, in this area, taken a view that "Let's just balance Iran, and it doesn't matter what Saudi Arabia is doing. If they're opposed to Iran, we should be for them." But this has led to, of course, a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

And here's the thing. If you talk to ordinary Americans, and if they were to know what we were doing, they would be appalled. They would not want us aiding the Saudis in bombing civilians in Yemen. And they certainly don't think the United States has a stake in a fight against the Houthis or in a proxy war against Iran. And so, what this resolution is doing is actually bringing this for a debate. That's why the War Powers Act said it has to be Congress that makes these decisions, because Congress is more accountable to people.

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Does the Western Left Have an African Problem?

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00

A young boy looks on from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as smoke rises from an ongoing attack, allegedly carried out by the Seleka Militia on the village of Mobaye in Central African Republic on September 21, 2017, in Mobayi-Mbongo. (Photo: JOHN WESSELS / AFP / Getty Images)

Most Western leftists who espouse anti-imperialist, antiwar, anti-colonial politics agree that there can be no hierarchies of oppression, but that rhetoric does not hold up when it comes to African countries, their revolutionaries and self-determination struggles. In fact, African countries and their politics are almost never discussed in leftist circles except to make points about imperialism or China.

A young boy looks on from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as smoke rises from an ongoing attack, allegedly carried out by the Seleka Militia on the village of Mobaye in Central African Republic on September 21, 2017 in Mobayi-Mbongo. (Photo: JOHN WESSELS / AFP / Getty Images)

"Africa fed the world, but the world eats without Africa."Dr. E. Obiri Addo

In 1983, Audre Lorde wrote that, "among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression," and that the act of placing oppressions on a scale of hierarchal importance is an oppressive act in itself. Of course, most on the left -- particularly those in Western countries who espouse anti-imperialist, antiwar, anti-colonial politics -- would agree with this in theory, but many seem to fall short of this analysis of anti-hierarchal political sentiment when it comes to the continent of Africa. There seems to be a deficit of caring -- or rather, caring enough to self-educate, research and act -- within the Western left on the current movements, histories and activism within African countries.

On the left in the West, we tend to critique global situations of state violence which are exacerbated and perpetuated by Western influences, and rightfully so. The left has aptly rallied against US intervention in places like Syria, where US airstrikes have already claimed thousands of civilian casualties. Western leftists have spent decades advocating for the rights and humanity of the Palestinian people against Israel's illegal settlement of their land, and the violence it perpetuates against Palestinians. Due to its relation to an active socialist project, the inner-workings and uprisings of Venezuela have been an integral part of the left's anti-imperialist praxis in the last year. We see the Western left prominently supporting the movements, self-determination struggles, anti-interventionisms and basic humanity of several communities in various parts of the world, and these communities certainly deserve much more support than they are currently receiving. However, when will there be room to support African struggles equally on this roster?

A few years ago, I began working closely to create political education events in Atlanta through the Walter Rodney Foundation, an organization that is headed by the family of the late Guyanese revolutionary intellectual Walter Rodney. Since then, I have watched double standards in oppressive hierarchy play out in real time, both online and in person. As an organization that works to bring radical African and Caribbean activists, academics and artists from throughout the African diaspora to Atlanta to discuss both historical and contemporary politics in Africa, many of our lectures and panels have audiences filled with Marxists, anarchists, radical feminists and womanists, and other left thinkers who come to hear Pan-African takes on current events. Each time I lecture on the violence in South Sudan, which can certainly be summarized as a conflict deftly exacerbated by the US and other outside profiteering agitators, or any other African-related topic, I watch faces in the audience fill with astonishment -- this knowledge appears to be completely new to them.

The US left is nearly silent on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where violence, instability and civil war have ravaged the country for decades now. In the DRC, the UN has massively failed in its various "peacekeeping" endeavors, having worsened the violence in many instances. UN peacekeepers stand accused of over 700 cases of rape and sexual assault, but most have not been held accountable. Since 2016 alone, more than 1.3 million refugees have been displaced in the DRC due to conflicts.

The interpersonal violence and downright instability within the country can also be partially (if not mostly) blamed on American and European development institutions and multinational corporations that use what is now called "agro-colonialism" to dominate the region through corrupt land-grabbing and human rights violations. Arguably one of the world's most mineral-rich countries with billion-dollar mining contracts that benefit mostly US, Swedish and Canadian-based companies, and include the use of hiring private militias and child slave labor for mining, the Congolese people have had their land and humanity trampled by Western forces for decades through capitalist exploitation and violence, yet few "Hands Off the Congo" campaigns have permeated the Western left's scope of interest as similar countries, such as Venezuela, have.

Similarly, we can see this hierarchical placement of global oppressions played out in the lack of coverage, sentiment and knowledge of the war in South Sudan, the world's "newest" country. As investigative journalist Nick Turse details in his 2016 book Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, the creation of South Sudan in 2011 was a project that the US helped solidify under a bipartisan committee, following two long civil wars that stretched from 1955 to 2005 and cost over 6 million lives, bolstered by the US's funneling of military equipment to "rebel groups" from 1996 onward. This military equipment exacerbated already-present conflicts, heightened by millions of dollars of weaponry funneled through Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda. Along with this, news of Hillary Clinton's State Department issuing waivers to allow the South Sudanese military to use child soldiers, despite specific law banning nations from providing military assistance to countries that use child soldiers, should have caused an international outcry led by the US left, but sadly, it didn't.

Today, South Sudan is on the brink of yet another civil war while US presence in the country increases, assumedly bidding for access to Sudan and South Sudan's million-dollar oil reserves. South Sudan is one of the most armed populations in the world, with arms deals from Israel, Ukraine, Canada, Iran, Britain and China, and others fueling a bulk of the violence. As outside forces arm both sides of the South Sudan conflict and continue to profit from the imminent violence -- similar to occurrences in Iraq and Syria that have rightfully caused outrage from the left -- the future of South Sudan seems depressingly abysmal. Again: Where is the outcry from the Western left? Where are the campaigns and marches, and where is the inclusive discourse?

As we begin to peel back the layers of this hierarchical placement of importance and solidarity, we must understand that it involves not only the current events that are allowed to dominate public leftist discourse, but also the histories and movements commonly studied and revered as well. While many can name the works of Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and other big-name left thinkers, few on the broader US left can name more than a handful of African revolutionaries. Similarly, few take the time to self-educate on the revolutionary uprisings and states which flared in places like Beninthe DRCGhanaZanzibarAlgeria or Senegal, and rarely are they familiar with the decolonization work of people like Walter RodneyFrantz FanonThomas Sankara (known as "the African 'Che'"), Patrice LumumbaSteve BikoJulius NyerereSékou TouréKwame Nkrumah or Winnie Mandela.

The vast histories of modern movements, struggles, revolutionaries and politics on the African continent are nearly erased by the Western left, rarely spoken of except when used to make a cross-point. That is, African countries and their politics are often used and weaponized when making points about imperialism, or China, but never in conversation about the country itself. The lessons we can learn from them and the need to bring attention to their plight are seen as less important, placed lower on the hierarchy of oppression. This lack of caring, or lack of caring enough, reproduces the same white supremacist logic that cast them into their exploitive plights in the first place.

As leftist academics and organizers, we have failed our African siblings.

As much as we want to believe the anti-imperialist, globalist politic is the transgressive move, we must begin to understand that fully transgressive and powerful global politics cannot simply follow trends regarding which countries and peoples are most popular to care about. We know this formula will always exclude the African struggle. To place our actions where our rhetoric is, we must move forward in such a way that makes our studies of history, theory and current events inclusive of the unavoidable important work of African revolutionaries, and the current plights of African countries and people living on the continent.

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Categories: Latest News

Wages Are Growing, Contrary to What You Read in the Papers

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00
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There is much to criticize about the US economy. There has been a massive upward redistribution of income over the last four decades. As a result, those at the top have gotten incredibly rich while the middle and bottom have seen almost nothing from the growth over this period.

The recent past has been even worse. Millions of people lost their homes in the collapse of the bubble, pushing the ownership rate to the lowest level in more than fifty years. For African Americans the ownership rate fell to the lowest level on record.

The Great Recession pushed the unemployment rate into the double digits, with the unemployment rate for African Americans exceeding 17 percent at its peak. The recovery has been long and slow. While the unemployment rate has finally fallen back to pre-recession levels, the employment rate for prime age workers (ages 25 to 54) is still 1.5 percentage points below pre-recession peaks and 3 percentage points below the peak reached in 2000. The weakness in the labor market led to a sharp falloff in real wages for those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution.

But that was the past. In the last couple of years we actually have been seeing some reasonably good economic news. The tightening labor market has narrowed the gap between the unemployment rates for African Americans and Latinos compared with whites. In 2014 the gap between the African American unemployment rate and the white rate was 6 percentage points. For the first nine months of the 2017 it has averaged 3.7 percentage points. For Latinos the gap was 2.2 percentage points in 2014 compared with 1.3 percentages so far this year.

Tighter labor markets have also meant that wages are actually rising for those at the middle and bottom of the wage ladder. There had been essentially no change in average weekly earnings between 2008 and 2014 for the median worker. (Weekly earnings can rise both because of higher hourly wages and also more hours of work.) Wages had just kept even with prices over this six year period. For workers at the 25th percentile cutoff (25 percent of workers earn less), real wages had actually fallen by 3 percent over this period.

However things have turned around and are now moving in the right direction. Weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, of the median worker have risen by roughly 5 percent since 2014. They have gone up about by almost 8 percent for workers at the 25th percentile of the wage distribution.

For African Americans weekly earnings for the median worker were still at their 2008 level as late as 2015. Earnings for workers at the 25th percentile were down by almost 4 percent. In the last two years earnings for median worker have risen by almost 5 percent, while they have risen by close to 9 percent for African Americans at the 25th percentile of the wage distribution. In the last three years, weekly earnings for the median Latino worker have risen by more than 10 percent.

This period of two or three good years does not come close to making up for the suffering of the Great Recession, much less the prior three decades of stagnate wages, but it is important to recognize that things are finally moving in the right direction. Workers are getting their share of the gains from growth and workers at the bottom are actually gaining ground at the expense of those at the top.

Getting this recent history right is important for two reasons. First, it means that the economy can deliver the goods for the bulk of the working population, if the unemployment gets low enough and the labor market tight enough. All the economy's problems will not be fixed by a low unemployment rate, but it does make a huge difference, especially for those at the middle and bottom of the income distribution.

The other reason we need to get this history right is that the progress of the last two years is threatened by the actions of the Federal Reserve Board in raising interest rates. The Federal Reserve Board has raised interest rates five times in the last two years. Its goal has been to slow the economy and reduce the pace of job creation. This limits workers' bargaining power and the risk of higher wages setting off an inflationary spiral.

While these rate hikes were arguably unnecessary, they were relatively modest given that the Fed was starting from a position of a zero interest rate. This could change if the Fed gets a new chair. The current chair, Janet Yellen, was the architect of this sequence of modest rate hikes. One person who is widely mentioned as a possible replacement is Kevin Warsh. Warsh is a former member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. In that position he repeatedly expressed concerns about inflation even as the economy was collapsing and the inflation rate was near zero.

If Yellen is not reappointed and Warsh is picked in his place, his imaginary fears of inflation may lead him to push the Fed to raise interest rates much further. If this happens, the period in which most workers are in a position to share in the gains from growth may quickly come to an end.  

Categories: Latest News

Voices of Resistance: Centering the Needs of Black Women in Mississippi

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00
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As a child growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Cassandra Welchlin witnessed the struggles her mother endured working as a maid. She also learned the importance of serving those in need from her foster grandmother, who instilled in her the importance of taking care of the community's elderly and disadvantaged. Welchlin took those lessons with her to Jackson State University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in social work in 1997, and to Brandeis University, where she received a graduate degree in sustainable international development in 2005.

Now a licensed social worker, Welchlin works for the Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative (MLICCI), which champions affordable child care for low-income working parents. In 2014 she cofounded the Mississippi Women's Economic Security Initiative as a project of the MLICCI to promote policies that improve the economic well-being of women and their families. This past legislative session, the groups played a major role in pushing the state legislature to pass a law making it easier for domestic violence victims to get a divorce. 

We recently spoke with Welchlin by phone about her work for our ongoing "Voices of Resistance" series, which aims to draw insight and inspiration from the South's deep history of struggle for social change and to learn from a new generation of Southern leaders working in today's volatile political climate. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity. If you have ideas for other Southern change makers to feature in the series, please contact Rebekah Barber at

Rebekah Barber: Tell me about yourself and how you became engaged in advocacy work.

Cassandra Welchlin: I want to start off by saying I'm my mother's story and my mother is my story. It was through her work that I learned about justice, and it was through my grandmother that I learned about service. And it was those two things that propelled me into this work of what I call my destiny.

My mother and her five siblings were raised in foster care. Her mother contracted tuberculosis in Mississippi, which at the time wasn't treating Black folks for that disease in a quality kind of way. Their father was working on the railroad and was away from home. Their mother's sister was caring for them but was very abusive to them. Their father found out about it and said, "I gotta get my kids to a safe place."

I'm not sure how it all happened; I believe there is a God that really structures and moves people to places where they need to be. Somehow my mother's father got in contact with this incredible woman, Gwendolyn Loper, who was the first Black social worker in the state of Mississippi. And their grandmother had a meeting with this social worker and said, "They need some care and I will only give them to you if you will guarantee they can all stay together."

[Loper] somehow found this foster care mother, Eva Thompson, who took in all six of these children, ranging from 3 years old all the way up to 8 years old. And she was already in her late 40s, early 50s, but she took in all six of these kids, and she raised them as her own.

They were still able to see their dad and their mother on occasion, but their mother ended up going to New York to get better treatment, and she was murdered. And so they never reunited with their mother. They stayed in that foster care home, and Eva Thompson became their mother. She never adopted them, but they stayed with her and she stayed with them up until her death when she was 84 years old.

And so she raised not only them but she also raised us as her grandkids, and I'm the first grandchild. And as a result of that, I learned from her -- I was around her all the time. Eva Thompson, who I know as my grandmother, was like the caretaker of the community. There were elders in the neighborhood who didn't have families, so she would cook food for all of us and for them as well. And it was my job to take the food to the elders who didn't have families. That's when I began to learn what service was in a very real way.

Every day she would fix a pot of cornbread with a meal, and it was my job to take it to the senior citizens in the neighborhood. And I was just 9 years old. And that really began to teach me that life was bigger than me, and it began to really teach me compassion. I had a lot of empathy for families and people who had less than what I had. And I had less than many, but I had a whole lot of love around.

And my mother and her siblings, up until their old age, they lived together. They put their resources together. They raised each other's children, and so we all lived together.

My mother and her siblings were all low-wage workers. And so as a young child I would go with my mother to her work. She was a maid at one of the state agencies. I didn't know why I would go to work with my mother -- I just thought that was the normal thing to do. But what I realize is that my mom didn't have enough money to pay for child care, so she had to take me with her. She would hide me in the maid closet with her co-worker while she would go out and perform her duties. And when she couldn't take me to work with her, I would go to work with my aunt, who was a maid at one of the local hotels here. My mom was only making $2.15 [an hour] and was on public assistance and just didn't have enough money to take me to child care.

I vividly remember seeing her struggle because she was a low-wage worker who just didn't have enough money to send me to child care. She had to do what she needed to do to make sure I was safe.

And so these things really propelled me and compelled me to want to make life better for other women who have children. These things propelled me to fight for these women to have higher wages so they don't have to choose between the family and children they love and the necessity of having a job. And from my grandmother I learned the importance of having compassion for people who need extra help. I decided that I wanted to be able to change things so no other mom would have to go through what my mother went through.

What are you engaged in right now to make the lives of women and children better?

I went into the field of social work -- I'm a licensed social worker. I started doing direct service work helping families with children with serious emotional disorders and realized that there were policies in place that were continually dragging my families through a system that wasn't working for them. I began to understand how policies were really impacting them and yielding them powerless to change anything. I began to want to work at the macro level of policy systems to change that, but I didn't want to leave the people that I wanted to change the system for -- and I didn't want to do it for them. So I employed community organizing as a way to still be a part of their lives and to do education with them, and to help them actualize their own vision, and to bring them to the policymaking table so that they would be able to hold their elected officials accountable and be a part of the implementation of the policies.

For the last six years I have been working with the Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative, and I cofounded the Mississippi Women's Economic Security Initiative because we realized that women needed a policy agenda that was responsive to their needs. We began to have these town hall meetings all across the state to hear from women about what they need to be economically secure. We heard these incredible stories of resilience and power. We also met with young women on college campuses to hear about what was important to them.

For us, it was about really doing this at the intersections of race and gender. Because you can't do work in the South without having a race analysis -- you just can't. But oftentimes you can do this work without having a gender analysis. It was important that we center women, and particularly Black women. Because, if we can be very honest, [those] who are living in poverty in the state of Mississippi are women and girls, and the majority of those are Black women, and women who are single.

Part of what I do is build alliances with these women so that I can understand what their issues are and help educate them about how the process works. How does a bill become a law? What are the regulations around some of these policies? What are some of the things that we can begin to change? Because once the policies change, they have to hold these agencies and elected officials accountable to implement them. So we don't want to just go make the policies if they're not informed about how to maintain or strengthen them.

I also build relationships, allyships, with legislators and policymakers so that they can take on these agendas. I've spoken before the legislative body, several committees of the Democratic Caucus and the Black Caucus. I have also spoken to our conservative policymakers on this issue. As a result of that, many of these legislators have coauthored legislation that is responsive to the women's policy agenda. This past session I was able to build a bipartisan coalition on pay equity. That was really amazing, and it brought a lot of people to the table. Now we have mayors at the table, we have local journalists at the table who have taken this issue on and have done some intensive research that we have been able to use as an advocacy tool.

We're hoping this next legislative session to get an equal pay bill for the state of Mississippi, because Mississippi and Alabama are the only two states that do not have an equal pay law on the books.

In a state like Mississippi with such a deep history of racism and sexism, what are some of the challenges that you have faced and how have you overcome them?

Mississippi definitely has a very racist history but also a sexist history -- a history where there has been a lot of racial violence but also sexual violence against women, particularly women of color. And religion, which is just so important to the culture here, has been used to justify the attitude that folks in power feel towards women, people of color, and poor people. They have used religion to justify so many of these injustices.

That's why it's so important that we are very intentional about putting forth this campaign. We needed to be able to begin to have conversations around these attitudes toward women and the culture that we live in that has justified so much of this racialized and sexualized violence. We have been very intentional about speaking truth to power around those things. Like I said, you have to talk about race in the South -- there's just no way around it. So we are very intentional about talking about race as well as gender.

For instance, this past legislative session we worked with the domestic violence coalition to push for a divorce law that would grant women a divorce based on the grounds of domestic violence. The chairman of the committee did not want to bring the bill out of committee to be voted on. His ideology was that he did not want to break up families. We know that this mentality comes from this religious background that teaches families should stay together no matter what -- even if you're getting the crap beat out of you and even if you die, you stay in that home. That comes from religion. When the legislation passed, it was the first major change to the state's divorce law in over 40 years.

One of the things we have been able to do is lift up those kind of issues and those attitudes and begin to pinpoint where that comes from. We interrogate this mentality and speak truth to power -- that this mentality is not OK. Even God doesn't want you to stay in a place where you’re going to be abused and harmed.

We activated our network with the domestic violence coalition and got our women to start making calls and posting things on social media to say, "This is unacceptable, women were not made to be abused." We were able to use the network that we have built to respond to that kind of foolishness and dangerous ideology.

Given that we are living in this conservative environment, we have learned a lot about where we can partner. We have been able to use what conservatives say is important to them to develop strategies to move our agenda. We were able to find commonalities even though we are on different sides of the political spectrum. We could all agree that we were getting robbed on our day jobs. So we built a bipartisan coalition because we were all being affected one way or the other.

In Mississippi, everything is very relational. So I'm very intentional about building relationships. You have to build relationships because that's another way we can find commonality. Those Republican conservative men also have a wife, a mother. So there are places we can all agree on. Relationships are key. I tell people, "If you're going to come to the South, you better be prepared to sit on the front porch and drink some sweet tea with your neighbor."

In this work, what gives you hope?

What gives me hope is knowing that, historically, I have seen my forefathers and my foremothers in the social justice arena who have bent the arc of justice and have won some incredible things such as the Voting Rights Act. Black women have always been at the forefront of that.

I have seen the fruits of Fannie Lou Hamer. I have seen the fruits of Dr. L.C. Dorsey. I have seen the fruits of Hollis Watkins. So I know it's possible to bend the arc of justice because I’ve seen it. I know that it's long-term, not short-term, work. And if you don't have hope, you can’t move anything.

Another thing that gives me hope is that I'm raising three little children, and I want to make the world better for them. They are children of faith and they have hope, so I live in that.

Categories: Latest News

The Hopeful Work of Turning Appalachia's Mountaintop Coal Mines Into Farms

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00
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On a surface-mine-turned-farm in Mingo County, West Virginia, former coal miner Wilburn Jude plunks down three objects on the bed of his work truck: a piece of coal, a sponge, and a peach. He's been tasked with bringing in items that represent his life's past, present, and future. "This is my heritage right here," he says, picking up the coal. Since the time of his Irish immigrant great-grandfathers, all the males in his family have been miners.

"Right now I'm a sponge," he says, pointing to the next object, "learning up here on this job, in school, everywhere, and doing the best I can to change everything around me."

Then he holds up the peach. "And then my future. I'm going to be a piece of fruit. I'm going to be able to put out good things to help other people."

Jude works for Refresh Appalachia, a social enterprise that partners with Reclaim Appalachia to convert post-mine lands into productive and profitable agriculture and forestry enterprises that could be scaled up to put significant numbers of people in layoff-riddled Appalachia back to work. When Refresh Appalachia launched in 2015, West Virginia had the lowest workforce participation rate in the nation.

When he's not doing paid farm work on this reclaimed mine site, Jude is attending community college and receiving life skills training from Refresh. "I'm living the dream. The ground's a little bit harder than what I anticipated," he says of the rocky soil beneath his feet, "but we'll figure it out." 

On this wide, flat expanse of former mountaintop, the August sun is scorching even through the clouds. In the distance, heavy equipment grinds away on a still-active surface mine site -- the type of site where some of the Refresh crew members used to work, blowing up what they're now trying to put back together.

Crew leaders drive out to an undulating ridge where we can see a 5-acre spread of autumn olive -- a tough invasive shrub once heavily seeded on former mine sites as part of coal companies' reclamation plans. It's summer 2016, and the crew for this particular Reclaim Appalachia site is awaiting the arrival next week of a forestry mulcher that will remove and chew up the shrubs into wood chips. By the next spring, the clearing will have been replanted by this Refresh crew with over 2,000 berry, pawpaw, and hazelnut seedlings. During my visit, everyone's clearly excited for the mulcher to arrive.

"It's almost like a continuous miner head," explains Nathan Hall, "but instead of mining coal, it's mulching autumn olives." Hall is from Eastern Kentucky and worked for a short time as a miner before attending the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies; now he heads up Reclaim Appalachia, which focuses on repurposing mine land.

A few small agriculture projects are on other former surface mines in the area, but Refresh and Reclaim are the only outfits attempting anything of this scale while also operating a job-training project. One crew member, former miner Chris Farley, says he's stoked to be a part of "the first bunch" to attempt to farm these rugged lands.

"It's a long-term science project," says Ben Gilmer, Refresh's president.

Southern West Virginia nonprofit Coalfield Development runs Refresh, Reclaim, and a family of three other social enterprises. In an environment where finding secure employment is hard, Coalfield offers low-income residents a two- to two-and-a-half-year contract to undergo training in sustainable construction, solar technology, and artisan-based entrepreneurship. Trainees also earn stipends to work on their associate's degrees and receive life skills mentorship before Coalfield assists them in finding full-time work.

Since 2012, Coalfield Development has created more than 40 on-the-job training positions and grown financial wealth for low-income people by over $3.1 million (calculated in wages, benefits, and savings). At current levels of participation, they project hiring 320 crew members and graduating 215 over the next nine years.

Ultimately, they hope that their model will spread to other parts of Appalachia, creating quality jobs that enable hardworking people to stay and make a living in this economically depressed region, where one in four children live in poverty.

They want to help people such as James Russell, a former coal truck driver who now serves as the site's crew chief. He gathers me up in a donated pickup truck for the full farm tour, where I meet goats, pigs, and chickens with a dual purpose: to provide food and land management. Their rooting and scratching removes invasive plants and their waste helps build the soil back. Eventually the hope is to create a closed loop between the animals and plants, where one nourishes the other, cutting down on feed and fertilizer costs.

This year during peak season, Refresh expects to sell 2,800 eggs per week to restaurants and produce 1,500 meat birds across all sites. This past spring, the first piglets and kids were born, and crew members harvested honey for the first time. In addition to fruits and nuts, they're also experimenting with hops, lavender, and greenhouse-grown vegetables.

Besides growing food themselves, Refresh wants to help other startup farmers access markets and technical assistance. This year the organization will offer a mobile poultry-processing trailer to local producers, for example, and then help sell the chickens through their burgeoning food hub. Refresh recently hired Savanna Lyons, a leader in West Virginia's sustainable agriculture movement, to manage the hub. The organization wants to provide people with the whole package -- step-by-step guides, management documents, and workshops.

They are also getting creative about markets targeting low-income people, thinking about not only where they can sell their fresh product, but also how they can make it accessible to the communities that need it. They are piloting a community supported agriculture program, for example, with a sliding scale that also accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

The Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, a rare and exceptional governmental resource for economic diversification in the coalfields, owns the land and leases it to Refresh for free. The authority's director, Leasha Johnson, says that though many people in the region have already been forced to move away to look for work, "there are a lot of people who are staying and who believe that we can survive this transition." That makes projects like Refresh worth the investment, she says. A former land manager for the coal industry, Johnson is one of the only economic development leaders here who will utter once-taboo terms such as "post-coal economy."

"It's an uphill battle," she adds, "from both an acceptance perspective as well as an economic and capital investment perspective."

This is not easy work. The groves of autumn olives sometimes seem impenetrable, and there are other aggressive invaders, like multiflora rose and tall fescue. The soil is compacted, composed of blasted rock, and lacks organic matter. Refresh doesn't know how long it will take to bring it back to life. "The soil scientists say, I don't know, you guys are charting new territory here," Gilmer says. Virginia's Division of Mined Land Reclamation estimates that it costs about $2,400 per acre to re-establish a foot of topsoil on previously mined ground. These sites also don't hold water very well -- they were engineered to drain into valley fills, the terraced slopes where rubble from mountaintop removal is dumped.

But they are not barren moonscapes. Appalachia is a temperate region with heavy rainfall. "[These sites] will definitely grow things," says Carl Zipper, a professor of crop and soil sciences at Virginia Tech specializing in restoration of mine lands. "They just need some care and management appropriate to their characteristics."

And in this mountainous region, where it's hard to find large tracts of flat pasture and croplands, figuring out how to use the more than 2 million acres of previously mined land that's not currently producing anything could unlock a whole new industry. "If [the Refresh project is] able to make a go of it and provide a model for others," Zipper says, "I think that's great."

So far, soil testing hasn't revealed any worrisome contaminants. While the water that runs off such sites can contain concentrations of heavy metals like selenium and manganese, which cause problems for aquatic life in headwater streams, Hall says, the concentration is undetectable on any given square foot of soil material.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question, though, is whether Refresh's crew members can really make a living through agriculture in the long term. Russell preaches diversification -- shoot for five ventures that produce $10,000 each per year. Jude wants to go the value-added path and combine his wife's love for cooking with his love for growing to open up a farm-fresh restaurant. Farley is hedging -- if coal makes a comeback, he may go back to the mines, but if not, he's sticking with agriculture.

The can-do spirit of this crew works in their favor. And like most people in the region, many of them can draw from their native expertise growing vegetable gardens to feed their families. Jude grew up hoeing corn, raising hogs, and growing pumpkins on his family's 4-acre farm. And during a recent workshop on marketing produce, crew member Lola Cline piped up that her father ran a produce wholesale business for 35 years.

Whatever the future holds, for now these workers are clearly laboring over something they love in an environment that encourages learning, mutual support, and giving back to their community -- all qualities that build resilience over the long haul. And in an economically struggling region where hope runs in high demand, this is no small thing.

Categories: Latest News

Tax Cuts for the Rich, Paid for With Your Health Care

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00

When Republican leaders tried to repeal health care in the spring and summer, many Americans raised the alarm and made a ruckus. We asked hard questions, looked at the independent analyses, held town halls, told our health care stories, and took to the streets.

Because of that overwhelming opposition, plans to slash health care to pay for corporate tax breaks failed. Republican leaders haven't given up. In fact, they've already begun voting on a scheme to slash taxes for corporations and multi-millionaires -- paid for by cuts to health care.

Now the plan to raid our health care is buried in the GOP tax scheme and budget process. Here's how they're putting it into place.

On October 5, the House of Representatives passed a budget resolution that cuts $1.5 trillion from Medicaid and other health programs, capping and starving Medicaid.

On top of that, the budget also slices almost $500 billion from Medicare -- and proposes turning it into a privatized voucher program and raising the eligibility age to 67.

The Senate budget proposal is just as bad. It would cut Medicaid, Medicare, and the financial assistance people get to buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act exchanges.

For the better part of 30 years, I've been organizing people and communities to win quality, affordable health care for all. These cuts will hurt all of us, especially people who need health care the most: seniors, people with disabilities, children.

The payoff? Our elected representatives get to dole out tax breaks to their big-money donors and corporate friends.

Don't expect House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the others behind this scheme to be honest about it. They're saying their tax cut plan for corporations and multi-millionaires will help ordinary people.

Their idea of who ordinary people are is pretty strange.

The richest 1 percent of Americans will reap 80 percent of the tax cuts, the non-partisan Tax Policy center calculates, while taxes for many moderate and low-income people would go up. The richest 5 percent of Americans will gain income from these tax cuts -- but the rest of us will lose income once those cuts are paid for.

The rich get richer and the rest of us lose income, health care, and other essential services like housing, food, and education. (And don't think they won't come for Social Security next.)

We'll wind up with what Republican leaders wanted from health care repeal: tens of millions of people thrown off their health care to clear the way for more than $1 trillion in tax breaks for the mega-rich.

All this comes at a time of soaring corporate profits -- with prescription drug corporations continuing to rake in exorbitant profits by price-gouging patients on lifesaving medications.

Instead of requiring Medicare to negotiate lower prices with drug corporations -- which would mean huge savings for the public -- Republican leaders in Congress want us to pay for corporate tax cuts with our health care.

What part of "no" didn't they understand?

Categories: Latest News

"Robin Hood in Reverse": Sanders Blasts GOP Budget Ahead of Key Senate Vote

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks in Silver Spring, Maryland, on July 13, 2017. (Photo: Blink O'fanaye)

With the GOP's safety net-shredding budget blueprint headed for a crucial vote in the Senate this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) blasted his Republican colleagues' proposals in a Guardian op-ed Monday as little more than a "gift to billionaires" made possible by doing "incalculable harm to tens of millions of working families, our kids, the sick, the elderly, and the poor."

"The Republican budget, which will likely be debated on the floor of the Senate this week, is the Robin Hood principle in reverse," Sanders writes. "It takes from those in need and gives to those who are already living in incredible opulence."

As Common Dreams has reported, despite the GOP's and the Trump administration's best efforts to portray their budget and tax plan as pro-middle class, non-partisan analyses have laid bare the fact that their proposals amount to an enormous boon to the wealthiest Americans.

The independent Tax Policy Center found last month that by 2027, 80 percent of the Trump-GOP tax cuts will be enjoyed by the top one percent.

To clear up budget space for this reward to the rich, Republicans are preparing to inflict "massive cuts [to] programs that working class Americans desperately need," Sanders notes.

"This budget cuts Medicaid by more than $1 trillion over 10 years -- which would throw some 15 million Americans off of the health insurance they currently have," Sanders adds. "Further, this budget does what the Republicans have not yet attempted to do in their previous healthcare legislation and that is to make a $473 billion cut to Medicare, despite Trump's campaign promises not to cut these programs."

To the question of why the GOP would so severely slash crucial safety net programs and deliver massive tax cuts to the wealthy -- moves recent polls have found are extremely unpopular among vast majority of the American public -- Sanders responds: "follow the money."

"Today, we have a corrupt campaign finance system that enables multi-billionaires, along with some of the most powerful CEOs in America, to contribute many hundreds of millions of dollars to elect Republican candidates to represent their views," Sanders writes. "As a result, the top one percent has been able to rig the political system to favor them at the expense of virtually everyone else."

Thanks to this system, Sanders argues, most Americans are subjected to devastating austerity while the rich and politically influential -- like the Koch brothers and the Walton family -- continue to get richer, decade after decade.

"At a time when the middle class is shrinking and over 40 million Americans are living in poverty, this budget must be defeated and replaced with a plan that reflects the needs of the working families of our country," Sanders concluded, "not just the wealthy, the powerful and large campaign contributors."

House Republicans approved their own budget blueprint, which largely reflects the priorities of their Senate allies, earlier this month.

If the Senate version -- which allows for $1.5 trillion in tax cuts and over $5 trillion in spending cuts -- is approved later this week, the path will be paved for Republicans to "fast-track" their tax legislation without needing any Democratic support.


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Categories: Latest News

Wages Are Growing: Contrary to What You Read in the Papers

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00
(Photo: Antonin; Edited: LW/ TO) This Truthout original was only possible because of our readers' ongoing support. Can you make a monthly donation to ensure we can publish more like it? Click here to give.

There is much to criticize about the US economy. There has been a massive upward redistribution of income over the last four decades. As a result, those at the top have gotten incredibly rich while the middle and bottom have seen almost nothing from the growth over this period.

The recent past has been even worse. Millions of people lost their homes in the collapse of the bubble, pushing the ownership rate to the lowest level in more than fifty years. For African Americans the ownership rate fell to the lowest level on record.

The Great Recession pushed the unemployment rate into the double digits, with the unemployment rate for African Americans exceeding 17 percent at its peak. The recovery has been long and slow. While the unemployment rate has finally fallen back to pre-recession levels, the employment rate for prime age workers (ages 25 to 54) is still 1.5 percentage points below pre-recession peaks and 3.0 percentage points below the peak reached in 2000. The weakness in the labor market led to a sharp falloff in real wages for those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution.

But that was the past. In the last couple of years we actually have been seeing some reasonably good economic news. The tightening labor market has narrowed the gap between the unemployment rates for African Americans and Hispanics compared with whites. In 2014 the gap between the African American unemployment rate and the white rate was 6.0 percentage points. For the first nine months of the 2017 it has averaged 3.7 percentage points. For Hispanics the gap was 2.2 percentage points in 2014 compared with 1.3 percentages so far this year.

Tighter labor markets have also meant that wages are actually rising for those at the middle and bottom of the wage ladder. There had been essentially no change in average weekly earnings between 2008 and 2014 for the median worker. (Weekly earnings can rise both because of higher hourly wages and also more hours of work.) Wages had just kept even with prices over this six year period. For workers at the 25th percentile cutoff (25 percent of workers earn less), real wages had actually fallen by 3.0 percent over this period.

However things have turned around and are now moving in the right direction. Weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, of the median worker have risen by roughly 5.0 percent since 2014. They have gone up about by almost 8.0 percent for workers at the 25th percentile of the wage distribution.

For African Americans weekly earnings for the median worker were still at their 2008 level as late as 2015. Earnings for workers at the 25th percentile were down by almost 4.0 percent. In the last two years earnings for median worker have risen by almost 5.0 percent, while they have risen by close to 9.0 percent for African Americans at the 25th percentile of the wage distribution. In the last three years, weekly earnings for the median Hispanic worker have risen by more than 10.0 percent.

This period of two or three good years does not come close to making up for the suffering of the Great Recession, much less the prior three decades of stagnate wages, but it is important to recognize that things are finally moving in the right direction. Workers are getting their share of the gains from growth and workers at the bottom are actually gaining ground at the expense of those at the top.

Getting this recent history right is important for two reasons. First, it means that the economy can deliver the goods for the bulk of the working population, if the unemployment gets low enough and the labor market tight enough. All the economy's problems will not be fixed by a low unemployment rate, but it does make a huge difference, especially for those at the middle and bottom of the income distribution.

The other reason we need to get this history right is that the progress of the last two years is threatened by the actions of the Federal Reserve Board in raising interest rates. The Federal Reserve Board has raised interest rates five times in the last two years. Its goal has been to slow the economy and reduce the pace of job creation. This limits workers' bargaining power and the risk of higher wages setting off an inflationary spiral.

While these rate hikes were arguably unnecessary, they were relatively modest given that the Fed was starting from a position of a zero interest rate. This could change if the Fed gets a new chair. The current chair, Janet Yellen, was the architect of this sequence of modest rate hikes. One person who is widely mentioned as a possible replacement is Kevin Warsh. Warsh is a former member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. In that position he repeatedly expressed concerns about inflation even as the economy was collapsing and the inflation rate was near zero.

If Yellen is not reappointed and Warsh is picked in his place, his imaginary fears of inflation may lead him to push the Fed to raise interest rates much further. If this happens, the period in which most workers are in a position to share in the gains from growth may quickly come to an end.  

Categories: Latest News

Guantánamo's Living Legacy in the Trump Era

Truthout - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 21:00
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Eight years ago, when I wrote a book on the first days of Guantanamo, The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo's First 100 Days, I assumed that Gitmo would prove a grim anomaly in our history.  Today, it seems as if that "detention facility" will have a far longer life than I ever imagined and that it, and everything it represents, will become a true, if grim, legacy of twenty-first-century America.

It appears that we just can't escape the perpetual pendulum of the never-ending war on terror as it invariably swings away from the rule of law and the protections of the Constitution.  Last month, worries that had initially surfaced during the presidential campaign of 2016 over Donald Trump's statements about restoring torture and expanding Guantanamo's population took on a new urgency.  In mid-September, the administration acknowledgedthat it had captured an American in Syria.  Though no facts about the detained individual have been revealed, including his name or any allegations against him, the Pentagon did confirm that he has been classified as an "enemy combatant," a vague and legally imprecise category. It was, however, one of the first building blocks that officials of George W. Bush's administration used to establish the notoriously lawless policies of that era, including Guantanamo, the CIA's "black sites," and of course "enhanced interrogation techniques." 

Placing terrorism suspects apprehended while fighting abroad in American custody is hardly unprecedented. The US government has periodically captured citizen and non-citizen members of ISIS, and fighters from the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab, as well as from al-Qaeda-linked groups.  To those who have followed such matters, however, the Trump administration's quick embrace of the term "enemy combatant" for the latest captive is an obvious red flag and so has elicited a chorus of concern from national security attorneys and experts, myself included. Our collective disquiet stems from grim memories of the extralegal terrorism policies the Bush administration institutionalized, especially the way the term "enemy combatant" helped free its officials and the presidency from many restraints, and from fears that those abandoned policies might have a second life in the Trump era.

Guantanamo's Detainees

What, then, is an enemy combatant? After all, memories fade and the government hasn't formally classified anyone in custody by that rubric since 2009. So here's a brief reminder. The term first made its appearance in the early months after 9/11.  At that time, then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo -- who gained infamy for redefining acts of torture as legal "techniques" in the interrogation of prisoners -- and others used "enemy combatant" to refer to those captured in what was then being called the Global War on Terror. Their fates, Yoo argued, lay outside the purview of either Congress or the courts. The president, and only the president, he claimed, had the power to decide what would happen to them.

"As the president possess[es] the Commander-in-Chief and Executive powers alone," Yoo wrote at the time, "Congress cannot constitutionally restrict or regulate the president's decision to commence hostilities or to direct the military, once engaged. This would include not just battlefield tactics, but also the disposition of captured enemy combatants."

The category, as used then, was meant to be sui generis and to bear no relation to "unlawful" or "lawful" enemy combatants, both granted legal protections under international law. Above all, the Bush version of enemy-combatant status was meant to exempt Washington's captives from any of the protections that would normally have been granted to prisoners of war.

In practice, this opened the way for that era's offshore system of (in)justice at both the CIA's black sites and the prison camp at Guantanamo, which was set up in Cuba in order to evade the reach of either Congress or the federal court system.  The captives President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent there beginning in January 2002 fell into that category.  In keeping with the mood of the moment in Washington, the US military personnel who received them were carefully cautioned never to refer to them as "prisoners," lest they then qualify for the legal protections guaranteed to prisoners of war. Within weeks, the population had grown to several hundred men, all labeled "alien enemy combatants," all deemed by Yoo and his superiors to lie outside the laws of war as well as those of the United States, and even outside military regulations.

American citizens were excluded from detention there. Some were nonetheless labeled enemy combatants. One -- Jose Padilla -- was arrested in the United States.  Another -- Yaser Hamdi -- was initially brought to Gitmo after being captured in Afghanistan, only to be flown in the middle of the night to the United States as administration officials hoped to escape public attention for their mistake.

Padilla had been born and raised in the United States; Hamdi had grown up in Saudi Arabia. To avoid the federal detention system, both would be held in a naval brig in South Carolina, deprived of access to lawyers, and detained without charge.  For years, their lawyers tried to convince federal judges that keeping them in such circumstances was unconstitutional. Eventually, the Supreme Court weighed in, upholding Yoo's position on their classification as enemy combatants, but allowing them lawyers who could challenge the grounds for and conditions of their detention.

Although the government defended the use of enemy combatant status for years, both Padilla and Hamdi were eventually -- after almost three years in Hamdi's case, three and a half for Padilla -- turned over to federal law enforcement. Never charged with a crime, Hamdi would be returned to Saudi Arabia, where he promptly renounced his US citizenship, as the terms of his release required. Padilla was eventually charged in federal court and ultimately sentenced to 21 years in prison.

By the time Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, both cases had been resolved, but that of another enemy combatant held in the United States, though not a citizen, was still pending. Ali Saleh al-Marri, a Qatari and a graduate student at Bradley University in Illinois, was taken from civilian custody and detained without charges for six years at the same naval base that had held Padilla and Hamdi. Within weeks of Obama's inauguration, however, he would be released into federal civilian custody and charged. Meanwhile, in June 2009, for the first and only time, the Department of Justice suddenly transferred a Guantanamo prisoner, Ahmed Ghailani, to federal custody.  A year later, he was tried and convicted in federal court for his involvement in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The message seemed hopeful, and was followed by other potentially restorative gestures. On the day Obama entered the White House, for instance, he signed an executive order to close Guantanamo within the year. In March, he abandoned the use of the term enemy combatant for the detainees there.  Aiming to release or try all who remained in that prison camp, he appointed a task force to come up with viable options for doing so.

In other words, as his presidency began, Obama seemed poised to restore rights guaranteed under the Constitution to all prisoners, including those in Guantanamo, when it came to detention and trial.  The pendulum seemed potentially set to swing back toward the rule of law. In the years to come, there would, nonetheless, be many disappointments when it came to the rule of law, including the failure to close Guantanamo itself.  There was, as well, the Obama administration's 2011 reversal of its earlier decision to take the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators -- including the "mastermind" of those attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- into federal court rather than try them via a Gitmo military commission.

In reality, that administration would even end up preserving an aspect of the enemy-combatant apparatus. In 2011, before bringing Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali defendant, and in 2014 before bringing Abu Khattala, the alleged mastermind in the deaths of an American ambassador and others in Benghazi, Libya, to the United States and putting them in federal custody, and i 2016 before bringing two Americans found fighting in Syria court here, the Obama administration would carve out a period for military detention and interrogation prior to federal custody and prosecution.

In each case, the individuals were held in military custody and first interrogated there.  Warsame, for instance, was kept aboard a US Navy vessel for two months of questioning before being charged with, among other things, providing material support to the Somali militant group al-Shabaab and to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (In December 2011, he would plead guilty in a federal court in New York City.) Khattala was held for 13 days. Once US intelligence agents had the information they felt they needed, they turned the detainees over to those who would help prosecute them -- to the "clean team."

Until the recent Trump administration designation, however, no one in the ensuing years would be newly labeled an enemy combatant and sent to the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility or held without charge on US soil. In fact, a number of individuals who, in the Bush years, would undoubtedly have become detainees there landed in federal court instead, including bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, and Abu Hamza al-Masri, an al-Qaeda operative accused of trying to build a terrorist cell in the United States.

As a result, this fall there are a surprising number of terrorism trials taking place, including that of the alleged Benghazi mastermind, of the two Americans who were fighting alongside ISIS in Syria, and of US citizen Muhanad Mahmoud al-Farekh, who was just found guilty in a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, of conspiring to aid al-Qaeda and bomb a US military base in Afghanistan. 

In these years, the belief that terrorism suspects belong within the federal criminal justice system was reestablished. In addition, Obama appointed two consecutive special envoys to take charge of transferring detainees cleared for release from Guantanamo, which Congress refused to close.  As a result, a total of 197 were released during the Obama years, leaving only 41 in indefinite detention as Trump came into office.

Meanwhile, during the tenures of Attorneys General General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, the federal courts would handle an increasingly wide array of terrorism cases, ranging from the Boston Marathon attack to the attempts of a woman in Colorado to travel abroad to marry an ISIS member and serve the caliphate. Taken together, these developments seemed to signify an end to the era of indefinite detention and of detention without charge. Or so we thought.

Back to the Future

Now, it seems, the term "enemy combatant" is back and who knows what's about to come back with it? Was the Trump administration's very use of that label meant to get our attention, to signal the potential Guantanamo-ish future to come, to quash any cautious hopes that the modest gains realized during the Obama years might actually last? Remember that, during the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump swore that he would add some "bad dudes" to Guantanamo and insisted that even American citizens could end up in that persistent symbol of American injustice.

In the meantime, in August it was revealed that the Pentagon was already requesting from Congress $500 million dollars to build new barracks for troops, a hospital, and a tent city for migrants at Gitmo.  In other words, the United States now stands at a worrisome and yet familiar crossroads in its never-ending war on terror and the signs point to a possible revival of some of the worst policies of the national security state.

In reality, so many years later, enemy combatant status should be a nonstarter, a red flag of the first order, as should indefinite detention. In the past, such policies produced nothing but a costly quagmire, leaving George Bush to personally release more than 500 detainees, Barack Obama nearly 200, and the government to eventually take citizens declared to be enemy combatants out of military custody and transfer them to federal court. Meanwhile, the hapless military commissions tied directly to Gitmo that were to replace the federal court system have yet to even begin the trials of the alleged co-conspirators of 9/11, while such courts have already tried more than 500 terrorism defendants.

Is this really what the Trump years have in store for us?  A return to a policy that never worked, that brought shame to this country, cost a fortune in the bargain (at the moment, nearly $11 million annually per Gitmo detainee), and undermined faith in the federal court system, even though those courts have proved so much more capable than the military commissions of dealing with terrorism cases?

For those of us who thought this country might have learned its lesson, the use of the term "enemy combatant" for new detainees and for an American citizen is more than a provocative gesture, it's the latest attack on the rule of law. It represents a renewed attempt to dismantle yet another piece of the fabric of American democracy and to throw into doubt a founding faith in the importance of courts and the judicial system.  It's another reminder that the rise of the national security state continues to take place outside the bounds of what was once thought of as fundamental to the republic -- namely, institutions of justice.  Suitably, then, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a habeas petition on October 5th challenging the detention of the newest enemy combatant, asserting, among other things, "John Doe's" right to an attorney and calling for him to be transferred into civil custody and charged or released.  

Though the future is so often a mystery, if the Trump administration goes down this same path again, it should be obvious from the last decade and a half just where it will lead: toward a renewed policy of legal exceptionalism in which the American scales of justice will once again be decisively tipped toward injustice. 

Categories: Latest News

Why the 25th Amendment Won't Save Us

Truthout - Sat, 10/14/2017 - 21:00

President Donald Trump leaves the podium after making a statement on Iran, in the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House, October 13, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

When the president tells all of Puerto Rico he's basically sick of hearing about them being wet, hungry and in the dark all the time, we have come to a truly bleak place. We are governed by human vacancies, and we the people are the only remedy there is.

President Donald Trump leaves the podium after making a statement on Iran, in the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House, October 13, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Well I don't know, but I been told
If the horse don't pull you got to carry the load
I don't know who's back's that strong
Maybe find out before too long

One way or another
One way or another
One way or another
This darkness got to give …

-- Robert Hunter

This may only be a minor accent in the vast symphony of outrage we are confronted with on a daily basis, but it is worthy of note. You are aware, I'm sure, of the ongoing shouting match Donald Trump is having with the NFL over players standing for the national anthem. Well, Trump found himself last week at the Air National Guard Base in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with Fox fiend Sean Hannity. By tradition, "Retreat" was bugled on the base as the flag was lowered for the day.

The same tradition requires all military personnel and civilian leadership to stand at attention out of respect for the flag. Neither Trump nor Hannity stood, flouting that tradition. Laughing as the bugle call filled the air, Trump asked Hannity, "Are they playing that for you or for me?" Referring to Hannity's show, Trump then addressed the crowd with, "They're playing that in honor of his ratings."

Remember when President Obama once saluted a member of his Marine guard with a coffee cup in his hand, and people like Sean Hannity reacted as if Obama had just offered the Sixth Fleet to Kim Jong-un as a birthday present? I do, and once upon a time, such brazen, televised hypocrisy would have captured my full attention. You're going on and on about the football players and the flag but just insulted your own armed forces, and on a base no less?

Once upon a time, yeah.

Those days are over. When the president of the United States of America tells all the residents of Puerto Rico he's basically sick of hearing about them being wet, hungry and in the dark all the time, when he threatens to cut them off completely despite the fact that the island was thoroughly scourged by a massive hurricane, and oh, by the way, they are also US citizens, it's hard to get worked up over "Retreat-gate" in the proper fashion.

This is what he said in a string of tweets before dawn on Thursday morning:

"Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making." says Sharyl Attkisson. A total lack of accountability say the Governor. Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend. We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!

Got that, everyone? The storm was Puerto Rico's fault. This US territory with no voting power in Congress seems to have quite the influence over earth, wind and fire these days, not to mention infrastructure and debt. The president sure thinks so, anyway.

This from the guy who was throwing rolls of paper towels at storm victims last week while lowballing the death toll as he talked about "a real disaster like Katrina." For the record, the current official number stands at 36, but the people running Puerto Rico's funeral homes know different. The people who buried their parents days after the storm passed because there was no power for their life support machines know different. The uncounted dead know different.

From the Guardian last Wednesday: "Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) say that the government and its partners are only providing 200,000 meals a day to meet the needs of more than 2 million people. That is a daily shortfall of between 1.8 million and 5.8 million meals. 'We are 1.8 million meals short,' said one senior FEMA official. 'That is why we need the urgency. And it's not going away. We're doing this much today, but it has to be sustained over several months.'"

Not if the president has his way about it. Sure, the US government enjoys Puerto Rico when the Navy needs to test its ship-to-shore firepower and showers Vieques with artillery, the remnants of which are likely to blame for the region having the highest disease rates in the Caribbean. What's a little depleted uranium, cardiovascular disease and cancer between fellow citizens, right?

But, you see, Puerto Rico has debt. A "financial crisis looms largely of their own making," Trump said. He is so adamant about Puerto Rico's debt that Congress, at his request, has made $5 billion of the aid package it's crafting a loan to Puerto Rico, which will also have to be paid back. Why? Because Puerto Rico's debt is owned by Wall Street, and Wall Street is Trump's people.

Sarah Jaffe recently spoke with Jonathan Westin, director of New York Communities for Change, who provided some truly revelatory information on who actually owns Puerto Rico's debt:

[Seth] Klarman is the hedge fund manager … [Klarman] is generally seen as kind of a 'progressive' Wall Street guy, but has hid himself in very intentional ways from being discovered as one of the biggest bond-holders of Puerto Rican debt. The way the debt was acquired by many of these hedge fund managers was they bought it for cents on the dollar when they took over debt from Puerto Rico, and are now trying to extract as much as possible out of the island to pay that debt back, even though they bought it for cents on the dollar.

There is a reason they are called vulture funds; it is because they prey on very downtrodden folks. They buy up debt from places that most people believe they won't be able to recover [their money], but then they do everything in their power to extract blood from a stone. Puerto Rico is not the only instance where hedge fund managers have gobbled up debt. They have done it in Argentina. They have done it in Greece. They have done it in many other places.

So here's Trump helping hedge fund managers like Klarman squeeze Puerto Rico for all the coppers they can wring, even though Klarman has made it abundantly clear that he believes Trump to be one of the horseman for the looming apocalypse. No matter. Puerto Rico is seen as a pigeon to be plucked, and the hedge fund managers must be fed.

Hardly a surprise, I suppose, coming from the humanitarian who wants so many more nuclear weapons that his own secretary of state reportedly called him a "fucking moron." There is a rumor going around that Kelly and Mattis have agreed to bodily tackle Trump if he ever lunges for the political "football." It sounds farfetched, but I believe it.

You see, the president of the United States is a vacant hole posing as a person, and there has been a lot of talk about the 25th Amendment because of it. Unless Trump leaves office voluntarily, the only mechanism for his lawful removal is found in section 4 of that amendment. It's a doozy.

To make use of it, the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet must tell Congress the president is unable to perform the duties of his office. The president can challenge this and immediately retain his powers, but if the vice president and the Cabinet reaffirm their claim of presidential incapacity, the matter goes to Congress for what amounts to a trial. For removal, both the House and the Senate have to agree with the vice president and the Cabinet by a two-thirds majority in each chamber. Otherwise, the president stays put.

In short, the 25th isn't coming to rescue us any time soon. It makes for a fine hashtag to deploy whenever the monster behaves monstrously, but that's about as far as it goes. Leaving aside the pan-dimensional improbability of Mike Pence and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari actually turning on Trump for any reason, there is the simple, sorrowful fact of Congress itself.

Let me tell you a little something about these people. Last week, the House passed legislation banning abortions after 20 weeks. They did so, according to a GOP caucus blog post, because the massacre in Las Vegas combined with the summertime shooting of GOP Rep. Steve Scalise reminded them "just how precious life is." Got that? Don't figure out what to do about the manufacture and distribution of the military-grade guns that killed all those actual people. Cough up a Senate-doomed sop to the GOP base to commemorate the sanctity of "life."

One of the GOP representatives who voted for this was Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania. A real bear for the sanctity of life is Tim, who enjoys a spotless "pro-life" voting record that was ever so slightly marred early this month when it came to light that he had urged his mistress to get an abortion. Rep. Murphy will be retiring at the end of his term.

Even Scalise, who (please pardon the all-caps) GOT SHOT this summer and almost died, is still dutifully hauling water for the NRA. We need more guns to keep us safe from all those guns. Seemingly in defense of his pro-gun stance, Scalise told Fox News last Tuesday, "When there was a shooter, luckily we had Capitol Police there with their own guns." Right, Steve, that would be the (pardon again) WELL-REGULATED MILITIA we read about in that 2nd Amendment you love so much.

Two-thirds of these people are not going to vote to remove Trump from office even if he lights the Capitol dome on fire. He is the last, best hope they have for making their proto-fascist Biblical nation fantasies a reality. A great many of these people are human vacancies just like the president, and they share a characteristic with him that happens to be their greatest collective strength: They are incapable of shame.

And so much for the 25th. For now.

"There comes a time," said free-speech activist Mario Savio, "when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop."

That is where we're at, I believe. This is not normal, this is not healthy, this is not safe, this is not right. It has to be stopped before Carl Sagan's pale blue dot becomes just another puff of dust in the long dark. The corporate "news" media won't help us. They love this stuff; hell, the country hasn't turned off the television since November. Our so-called leaders in Congress may as well be cardboard cutouts of themselves for all the good they do.

No, this falls to us, to as many of us as can be summoned, and there are a great, great many of us. Something simple. Everyone takes the same day off from work and idles the nation. Everyone participates in a tightly focused boycott until the entity in question ceases to exist. Then do it again. Everyone goes to Washington, DC, sits down in front of the White House, and waits. A flexing of muscles too many of us have forgotten we have, indicating to those in power during this ongoing calamity that it's sure been a laff riot, you guys, but enough is too much. We are stopping the machine until this is fixed.

If we're down to dreams, it's a good one. See what you can do.

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Categories: Latest News

Your Boss Shouldn't Get to Have "Religious" Objections to Your Health Care

Truthout - Sat, 10/14/2017 - 21:00

When Obamacare -- aka, the Affordable Care Act -- became law in 2010, it mandated coverage of birth control without co-payments.

Some employers didn't like the rule, and Hobby Lobby hated it so much that the company filed a lawsuit to stop it. Company owners said they didn't believe in contraception and claimed that covering it for female employees violated their religious freedom.

Understand, the Obama administration went to great lengths to exempt churches and church-related institutions from the rule, while still guaranteeing their female employees the right to birth control if they wanted it.

Then the Supreme Court stepped in, siding with Hobby Lobby and ruling that "closely held" corporations with religious objections could join religious employers in excluding birth control from their insurance plans.

Now the Trump administration has gone a giant step further. They're now allowing any and all businesses, including publicly traded ones, to also cite "religious or moral objections" in denying their employees contraception coverage.

Wait a minute.

Corporations not only have religious freedom but now moral principles, too? I didn't even know they went to church, and I'm pretty sure I've never seen one get down on its knees and pray.

On the other hand, I know women -- who are actual people -- have religious freedom under the Constitution, too. What about their right not to be forced to bow to their employers' religious beliefs or highly suspect "moral" principles?

MassachusettsCalifornia, and the ACLU have filed lawsuits to stop the rollback. Good luck. Besides Hobby Lobby, the conservative majority in the Supreme Court ruled years ago in the Citizens United case that corporations have constitutional rights, and they've consistently ruled in favor of their corporate buddies over women in employment discrimination cases.

On top of that, six of the nine justices are male, and most of them of rather conservative religious persuasions. The odds look to be stacked against women.

Expanding so-called corporate citizen rights deeper into health care could ultimately affect everybody, not just women.

Christian Scientists are opposed to all kinds of medical treatment, including for diabetes, cancer, and meningitis. Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in blood transfusions. There are undoubtedly other religious taboos on medical procedures.

Enterprising businesses that want to save money could cite "religious freedom" to exclude virtually any medical treatment from their insurance plans. Surgery, antibiotics, immunizations -- you name it.

Where will it end? We don't know. Even if the lawsuits are ultimately successful, a decision could take years.

All I know is that I don't want my neighborhood corporate citizen making my health care decisions.

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Categories: Latest News

Why Rick Perry's Proposed Subsidies for Coal Fail Economics 101

Truthout - Sat, 10/14/2017 - 21:00
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In a controversial proposal, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has asked federal regulators to effectively subsidize coal and nuclear power plants at ratepayers' expense. Under Perry's proposal, plants that operate in deregulated electricity markets -- where generators normally compete to provide power at the lowest cost -- would be guaranteed positive profits so long as they stockpile 90 days' worth of fuel on site. 

To rationalize this proposal, which a former Republican member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has dubbed "the antithesis of good economics," Secretary Perry points to uncompensated benefits generated by coal and nuclear plants.

As energy economists, when we think about coal-fired electricity generation, what usually comes to mind are unaccounted-for costs -- not benefits. This emerging pro-coal narrative is worth unpacking. 

Coal's Hidden Costs

When we teach the concept of externalities -- the idea that economic activities can generate costs or benefits that are not reflected in their prices -- we often use coal markets as a textbook example of negative externalities. It is true that burning coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and has helped propel emerging economies to modern-day heights. However, mining, transporting, storing and burning coal also have all kinds of negative health and environmental consequences that are not reflected in coal market prices.

For example, burning coal produces local and regional pollutants, including mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and fine particulates. These pollutants cause thousands of premature deaths and illnesses in the United States annually. They also help form acid rain and ozone that damage crops and ecosystems. Even more significant from an economic perspective, burning coal is the source for almost a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to rising temperatures and sea levels, not just here but worldwide. 

The nonpartisan National Academies of Sciences estimate the health and environmental damages per million Btu, or British thermal units, of coal at US$6.60. (British thermal units are a measure of the energy content of fuels.) For perspective, the delivered coal price in 2016 averaged $2.15 per MMBtu. Coal looks cheap, but we're paying a hefty hidden cost.

The coal industry has historically fought regulations that aim to internalize these significant negative impacts. Now, however, Perry and other proponents are clamoring to account for alleged positive externalities from coal, such as reliability and resilience. In our view, this is like subsidizing bacon because it contains vitamins. 

How Did We Get Here?

In April 2017 Secretary Perry commissioned a study to "explore critical issues central to protecting the long-term reliability of the electric grid." Perry's memo foreshadowed some anticipated conclusions -- namely, that a recent decline in coal-fired generation was making electricity generation less reliable and "threaten[ing] to undercut the performance of the grid well into the future." The stage was set for a study that could support a pro-coal agenda.

An early draft of the study concluded that "the power system is more reliable today due to better planning, market discipline, and better operating rules and standards." This was not what the energy secretary ordered. The summary statement about the grid being more reliable than ever was later removed. Nonetheless, the final report offered no evidence that coal plant retirements were undermining grid reliability. 

Despite this conclusion, in October Perry directed federal energy regulators to guarantee cost recovery for plants that stored 90 days of fuel on site. In our view, this is a ham-handed approach to compensating resilience and reliability services. However, it effectively targets compensation at the type of plants this administration wants to prop up -- coal and nuclear plants. 

Does Coal Keep the Lights On?

The proposed regulation is based on some key arguments that contradict DOE's own expert analysis in the grid report. First, it assumes that coal plants are indispensable to keeping the lights on and meeting electricity demand. 

To assure reliability, electric grids need to balance supply and demand in real time or risk cascading blackouts. One supplier shirking its responsibilities can lead to problems for all users of the grid. So we can think of reliability of supply as a positive externality, in the same way that pollution is a negative externality. 

But unlike pollutants such as carbon dioxide, electricity markets have internalized the external costs and benefits of reliability to a significant extent. The detailed rules and regulations that govern power grid operations require utilities to have more generating capacity than they need. They also compensate some plants for standing by to provide power in case of emergencies. (Typically, these are natural gas plants that can start up quickly.) Power markets compensate producers for providing reliable capacity and penalize them when they fail to meet their obligations. 

The proposed regulation also assumes that the resilience of the nation's electric grid is "threatened by premature retirements of power plants that can withstand major fuel supply disruptions caused by natural or man-made disasters." What kind of disasters are we talking about here? One example might be cyberattacks. There is no evidence that coal-fired power plants are less likely to be hacked, or will be quicker to recover, than natural gas, wind or solar generators. 

Large-scale environmental events such as hurricanes, floods and extreme cold weather could also threaten grid resilience. There is redundant natural gas pipeline transportation capacity in much of the country, which reduces fuel supply risks substantially. Still, during some weather disruptions, coal rail networks could be more reliable than gas pipelines. 

But after Hurricane Harvey, flooded coal piles forced one of America's largest coal plants in Texas to close two of its units and convert others to natural gasFrozen coal piles and train derailments have kept coal plants elsewhere from operating during cold winter weather. A recent report by the Rhodium Group states:

"Of all the major power disruptions, nation-wide over the past five years, only 0.0007 percent were due to fuel supply problems. The vast majority were the result of severe weather knocking down power lines." 

Coal's Negative Balance Sheet

Subsidizing utilities to burn more coal would worsen coal's major negative externalities in the name of some dubious positive externalities. Deregulated power markets already have measures in place to support efficient levels of investment in reliability and resilience. There is surely room for refinement, but Perry's proposal is the opposite of refined. It asks government to interfere in well-functioning markets, which is not something Republicans usually support -- especially since it will come at great expense to ratepayers.

Subsidizing coal for its reliability attributes is like subsidizing bacon for its nutritional content. There are better ways to get your vitamins, and better ways to keep the lights on.

Categories: Latest News

Revolution Deferred: What Lessons Can We Learn From October 1917?

Truthout - Sat, 10/14/2017 - 21:00

We often assume that the divisions and petty personal rivalries that beset political movements are unique to our time, especially in comparison with past movements that succeeded in creating massive and tangible change. China Miéville's October: The Story of the Russian Revolution puts an end to that myth with its remarkable study of the groups and individuals involved in the revolution of 2017.

Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

One hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution changed the world. Ever since then, it has been contested history. China Miéville's October: The Story of the Russian Revolution tells the story of not one but two revolutions that took place in 1917 and the extraordinary events surrounding them: a remarkable story of uprisings and repression, heroism and folly, triumph and tragedy. Get your copy by making a donation to Truthout!

"Stalin, of course, was not yet Stalin."

This sentence, appearing less than one hundred pages into China Miéville's October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, sums up the biggest challenge of writing a fresh history of the events of 1917. As Miéville writes, "any account of the revolution is haunted by a ghost from the future" -- and not just the ghost of Joseph Stalin.

When we first encounter them in this book, Lenin is not yet Lenin in that sense, Trotsky is not yet Trotsky, even if they were already going by those names. October is, in one sense, an origin story for the "heroes and villains" who have been rendered such by a century of revolutions inspired by them, internal socialist and communist argument about their relative merits, and conservative and liberal smears.

That last factor is crucial and forms the biggest argument for educating oneself about the Russian Revolution. Decades of anti-communist propaganda and miseducation about Russia in the United States are still having a malign effect on the political discourse. For an example of this, one has only to look at how often Soviet iconography or language crops up in discussion of Donald Trump's connections to modern Russia, from tweets to protest signs. Meanwhile, many American socialists still feel the need to specify that their socialism is not the Russian kind.

The Russian Revolution, then, carries a signifying meaning that is far in excess of the extent to which it is actually understood, even in terms of the most agreed-upon series of events. As just one example of a basic historical fact not much discussed: the revolution can be more accurately described as two revolutions, describe by Miéville in his introduction thus:

The first, in February, dispensed breakneck with a half-millennium of autocratic rule. The second, in October, was vastly more far-reaching, contested, ultimately tragic and ultimately inspiring.

Though it begins with a rapid catch-up of the preceding centuries and closes with a haunting overview of what was to follow, October is primarily concerned with the time in between these two revolutions, what its author calls "two confused, liberatory upheavals." During this period of "dual power," the Duma's Provisional Government (who assumed power somewhat reluctantly and included some still pining for the deposed monarchy) wrestled with pressure from below to complete the work of the revolution -- pressure that sometimes came through the Petrograd Soviet and other Soviets (grassroots workers councils), but sometimes from without those bodies and pushing the Soviets themselves further left.

A lesser writer may have left one bogged down in the weeds reading October during the middle periods in which factions plot, endless committees and bodies with confusingly similar names tussle, and the balance of power and momentum lurches between revolutionaries, moderates and reactionaries. Bureaucracy can be a drag to read about, even if the point of the narrative is the failure of bureaucracy to hold back the desire of an emboldened people to achieve more freedom and equality than the initial February insurrection granted them. But this is necessary stuff to understand. Miéville's book reveals the extent to which it was not always even a question of the Bolsheviks pushing the rest of the Soviet, or even of Lenin pushing the Bolsheviks -- in fact, Lenin shows a caution at times over the course of 1917 that might surprise some readers.


There is a tendency among analysts of current political movements to assume that our movements are uniquely beset by divisions and petty personal rivalries, while organizers of the past were less easily divided and diverted. This goes doubly true for any organizers or movements who made things happen or caused change on massive scale -- which the Bolsheviks, whatever you think about the end result, undeniably did.

But any close and honest study of any movement or group of organizers will reveal that this assumption is a myth. October is a striking example. Not only were the arguments between groups and individuals within those groups more complex, fractious and malleable than history tends to recall, but individuals themselves were much less fixed in their stance. Lenin, in particular, emerges here as a figure given to startling changes in position almost overnight. While Lenin would claim that these were always necessary responses to rapidly shifting realities on the ground, Miéville is unwilling to let him off the hook when his caution seems misguided, or when Lenin employs his trademark verbal ferocity in castigating a position that was or will soon be his own.

Trying to apply lessons of the Russian Revolution to a subsequent period of history, in another nation under another economic and political system, is a tricky proposition, one which the left has been wrestling with for decades. It is a tendency that is as tempting as it is perilous. For example, to describe Alexander Kerensky, briefly leader of the Provisional Government, as "liberal" or "centrist," as most of those on the English-speaking left understand those terms today, is no doubt not quite historically accurate. Yet the parallels are hard to resist, given Kerensky's combination of lofty rhetoric and noncommittal vacillation, and his willingness to partner with the far-right would-be military dictator Lavr Kornilov -- only to baulk at the last moment, due in part to a farcical misunderstanding.

There are other things we can learn simply by looking at just how different circumstances were. The role of enlisted members of the Russian military, for example, was crucial in 1917: not just in enabling revolution to occur but often as one of the forces pushing harder left. In countries that have only economic (not formal) conscription, and whose militaries employ much more thorough and subtle mechanisms to ensure its ranks are not accidental breeding grounds for political dissent, it is hard to imagine the military playing such a role now. This is something with which those who want to see revolutionary change take place in, say, the United States will have to honestly grapple.

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There will be some readers on the left who disagree with Miéville's conclusions, to put it mildly -- those who find him too enamored of Trotsky, too forgiving of Menshevik leader Julius Martov, too sweeping in his condemnation of Stalin, too admiring or too critical of Lenin. To this reader, he does in fact meet his stated goal of being fair but not neutral, partisan but not dogmatic or uncritical.

Miéville is unequivocal that the revolution went wrong, but has more questions than answers as to how this happened. He has no time for the "Lenin leads inevitably to Stalin" canard, nor does he absolve Lenin and the Bolsheviks from blame. He bemoans the lost opportunity for a democratic socialist coalition in October 1917 after the collapse of the hopelessly compromised Provisional Government, but places primary responsibility for this failure on the left Mensheviks who walked out when a new, revolutionary coalition was within reach. He is also clear about the role played by the virulently hostile and violent reaction of foreign powers (including the United States, Britain and France) to the birth of a socialist country, in prompting the decay of that socialism.

Trains play an important role in the story of 1917: "The tsar's wheeled palace ... Lenin's sealed stateless carriage ... the trains crisscrossing Russia heavy with desperate deserters" to name but a few. For those who have read Miéville's novel Iron Council, it is impossible not to see the echoes in the final passage of October -- or rather, the historical details which that story echoes. Iron Council ends with a train full of revolutionaries frozen in time as it approaches a city, its fate unknown, the revolution unfinished.

In case the metaphor was not clear, the author returns to it again to close out October. We cannot write an ending for the story of revolution because the story is not over. The train has not arrived at its final destination. Whether it does, and what that destination will look like, are up to us.

Categories: Latest News

Dean Baker on the GOP Tax Plan: 80 Percent of the Benefit Is Going to the Richest 1 Percent

Truthout - Sat, 10/14/2017 - 21:00

President Donald Trump participates in a tax reform kickoff event at the Loren Cook Company in Springfield, Missouri, on August 30, 2017. (Photo: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images)

Janine Jackson: The key part of the Republican tax plan, CNBC explained, isn't the individual or even the corporate tax rates. The big news is that it doubles the standard deduction and provides significant relief and simplicity for most taxpayers.

And just to be clear, they added, "This should be the focus of the tax reform debate, not the endless old argument about benefits for the rich." A separate report noted that administration officials are abandoning their oft-voiced deficit concerns, because of the amazing "growth" the plan will generate.

What's a lay person to think? Here to help us understand is economist Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He joins us now by phone from DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Dean Baker.

Dean Baker: Thanks a lot for having me on.

To the extent that there is an "endless old argument about benefits for the rich," it seems clear that the rich keep winning it. So this doubling of the standard deduction, does that make the case that, contrary to all expectations, this is tax reform for the little guy?

No, and it's kind of incredible anyone really even tried to pass that off. Because coupled with doubling the standard deduction, they're eliminating the personal exemption, so the basic story -- I should have exact numbers, but the current standard deduction is roughly $6,000 and change. So they double it to $12,000 and change, and they're getting rid of the personal exemption, which is roughly $4,800.

Now, that puts you up somewhat ahead, but there are two points to keep in mind. One is that the personal exemption increases with inflation; at least, that's the current law. So ten years from now, it'd be roughly 20 percent higher, it'd be roughly $6,000, basically putting you even.

By 2027, the Tax Policy Center estimates, about 80 percent of the benefits of the GOP tax plan would be going to the top 1 percent.

The other part of the story is that they're actually raising the tax rate. The bottom tax rate is currently 10 percent; they would raise it to 12 percent. Now, one of the things they haven't filled in is where all the rates would cut off, where exactly the brackets would be. But in any case, doubling the standard deduction is likely to mean very little for most people, which is part of the reason that most of the estimates show roughly 80 percent of the benefits going to the richest 1 percent. So I can understand the people in the richest 1 percent telling us not to pay attention, but that's a big deal.

CNBC, that same piece, says that it's "about as far as you can get from tax plans that supposedly only favor the 1 percent, or rely on trickle-down theories to boost the overall economy." Hmm.

You know, the only thing I could say, if you want to be generous, is maybe they were confused and missed the part about eliminating the personal exemption, which would be kind of astounding. It's clear the bulk of the benefits are going to the richest 1 percent. You get rid of the estate tax; you lower the top tax bracket, 39 to 35 percent; you have a special tax rate for pass-through income, like what Donald Trump gets his income through, at just 25 percent. These are benefiting the rich and no one else.

I couldn't really think that any thinking person imagined that the plan would not benefit Trump himself. I would think his base would think he was a fool for making a plan that wouldn't benefit himself. You know, that's not the winner they voted for. Is there more to say about the part of the plan that CNBC says we should look away from, you know, what it does for the wealthy?

Well, in terms of benefiting Trump, it is almost as though he designed a plan that would personally benefit him. I mean, I don't quite think that's the case. But, again, I mentioned the estate tax, that it would get rid of that. Just to be clear, the estate tax applies to almost no one. It allows personal exemptions of $5 million. That means a couple gets to exempt $10 million, and that's roughly two-tenths of 1 percent of estates, that get above $10 million. You have to be pretty well off, that's not just a successful small businessperson.

He also proposes getting rid of the alternative minimum tax. And in the one tax form that was leaked or he released, however we got it, that became public, he was subject to the alternative minimum tax. This was put in place in the '86 tax reform, saying if you manage to reduce your tax liability by getting through all these other loopholes, you're going to have to at least pay 25 percent in the alternative minimum tax.  Well he gets rid of that.

And then the pass-through business income. Basically, it makes zero sense. The notion of a pass-through corporation is the corporation itself pays zero tax, you just pass the profits on. To my view, that's kind of an outrage to begin with, because at least if they get protection as a corporation, limited liability, why shouldn't they pay tax? But in any case, we do that. So they pay zero tax, and then they pass it on to an individual, and you're taxed on it just like your wage income, which is ordinary income.

What this says is, no, it doesn't matter what tax bracket you're in, so if you're in the highest tax bracket, if you're in the 39 percent bracket, or 35 under their plan, you would still only pay tax at a 25 percent rate, because it came through a pass-through corporation. It's just kind of a head-scratcher. Why would you do that?

And, naturally, it would create a huge business in tax avoidance, because everyone -- at least every wealthy person -- is going to figure out how to have their income come through a pass-through corporation, so they could have a 10 percentage point reduction in their tax rates. Not what you want to do with tax reform.

headline in the New York Times said, "In Trump Tax Plan, a Windfall for Businesses Large and Small." Among the things that it indicates are "an easy way to bring overseas profits back to the United States without being taxed." What am I missing about what's so great for the country at large to let corporations bring profits back without those profits being taxed?

Well, there's a couple issues here. First off, there's already roughly $2 trillion -- we don't have an exact number, somewhere in the order of $2 trillion -- in foreign profits of US corporations that are stashed overseas, at least on paper. Those currently couldn't come back unless they were taxed. What they're proposing is to have some tax holiday -- we did this in 2005, where it was brought back at a 5 percent tax rate -- where they could bring it back and pay very little tax on it. So it says it's going to do that, but it doesn't say what the rate is. That's one of the things, I guess, to be decided later. Kind of a big thing.

But the other thing, that's of course of more consequence going forward, is it shifts our tax to a territorial tax. And what that would mean is that corporations would only be taxed on their US profits; whatever they earn overseas, they pay zero US tax on. Now, that's not particularly any boon to the US, but it gets worse, because we don't know where corporations are actually getting their profits. So you've just given them a huge incentive to lie to us about where their profits are, and that's become increasingly easy, because you have companies like Apple and Pfizer and others, where much or all of their profit is associated with intellectual property claims. And we don't know where Apple's great innovation for the iPhone came from, so they're going to tell us it came in Ireland, where the tax rate's just 12.5 percent. And then they don't have to pay our tax rate; they'll just pay Ireland's tax rate. I have a hard time seeing why that's good for people in the United States.

The plan, of course, is still evolving. But the New York Times says, "Business leaders were nonetheless quick to applaud the broad outlines of the proposal, claiming that tax cuts would spur new investment and grow the economy." I wonder if I could ask you, first, what it actually means to "grow the economy," and then, does this plan do that?

It's an improper use of the word "grow," but that dates back to Bill Clinton. But, you know, whatever. It's supposed to be transitive. "Make the economy grow," in other words, would be the way one would ordinarily say it, but that's I guess passé, to use the correct grammar.

But in any case, it would mean more rampant economic growth. But you're very hard-pressed to see how that would come from this plan.

So the question is, would there be some spurt of investment? And a lot of research on this issue, the idea that lower tax rates are going to lead to more investment; I can't say it's going to lead to zero more investment, but certainly not any big flood of more investment. And the idea it would have a measurable uptick in growth, that's really not a plausible story. So their claims -- they're talking about increasing growth rate 5 percentage points -- they're just pulling numbers out of the air. There's literally nothing to support that.

Finally, I find the approach of a lot of coverage disconcerting, whether Trump Republicans will get a "win" after their "loss" on ACA repeal. But also, coverage sort of separates and counterposes individuals and businesses and the economy at large, almost as if those were competing forces. But, clearly, I can gain something as an individual, but lose it again and then some if the labor market is impacted, and then again if the broader economy is harmed in some way. Is there a better way to talk about tax policy?

Certainly, again, the "win" stuff, the horse race stuff, there's a lot of that, and that's unfortunate. I mean, people want to read that, and that's OK. But that shouldn't be the dominant story, and unfortunately it takes that form. But one of the things that you and I both have alluded to -- it's not a complete plan, which is a little bit astounding, given that they're working on it for months, and they've been talking about tax reform literally for years, that they throw this on the table. And, in fact, the president's chief economic adviser, Kevin Hassett, criticized the analyses because they said, well, they're making analyses of partial plans. And he's right, but why are they putting a partial plan on the table?

The other point though is, yes, ultimately, at the end of the day, people want to know how this is going to affect their lives. And on the one hand, there's sort of the immediate impact: OK, am I going to pay more in taxes? That's kind of hard to say, at this point, for most people. I mean, odds are for most people, it won't mean much difference. It will for the rich and the very rich.

The other part is, OK, let's carry through their logic. What would it mean -- you know, you'd asked the question before about "grow the economy." So what would that mean, what's a plausible story there? Well, the story they would like to tell is, OK, you'll have more growth, that will mean higher wages, more jobs. That's the story they would like to tell. There's really no plausible way of getting from here to there.

And then if you add in, OK, you're creating large deficits. I mean, they're denying this, and I'm not the big deficit hawk, but you are creating large deficits, and there's good reason to believe that the day after they pass this thing, they'll start screaming about deficits, and then they'll say, OK, we have to cut spending. And they're not going to be cutting the military, so what that means is they'll be cutting Medicare and Medicaid, maybe Social Security. Who knows what will be on the chopping block? But these are going to be programs that people depend on.

We've been speaking with Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. They're online at, where you can also find Dean's blog, Beat the Press. Dean Baker, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thanks a lot for having me on.

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Categories: Latest News

Why Labor Is Fighting to Save Veterans' Health Care

Truthout - Sat, 10/14/2017 - 21:00

Union activists believe Trump's federal hiring freeze will cause veterans and their families to lose faith in VA-provided care. (Image: Scukrov / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

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In January President Trump delivered on his promise to shrink the federal government: he announced a hiring freeze, despite thousands of federal job vacancies.

As a candidate, Trump campaigned as a great friend of veterans. He pledged to make big improvements in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the arm of the Veterans Administration (VA) that operates the largest health care system in the country.

But Trump's hiring freeze deepened an already existing staffing crisis at VHA hospitals and clinics throughout the US, where there are 49,000 vacant positions.

Union activists believe the resulting understaffing is designed to generate patient complaints and negative publicity that will cause veterans and their families to lose faith in VA-provided care.

"Some in Congress want to underfund the VA so they can say that government doesn't work," says Dusten Retcher, a 29-year old Air Force veteran, who processes veterans' benefit claims in Minneapolis. "Then they want to turn it over to the private market." 

Socialized Medicine 

The VHA covers nine million veterans who qualify based on their low income or, like Retcher, have a service-related medical condition. Unlike Canada's single payer system or Medicare in theUS, it does not function primarily as an insurer, simply reimbursing private hospitals, doctors, or pharmacies.

Instead, like Britain's National Health Service, the VHA provides direct care to veterans, via salaried personnel who are not paid on a fee-for-service basis. As the nation's largest publicly funded, fully integrated health care network, it's a model of socialized medicine more far-reaching than the single-payer plans proposed by Congressman John Conyers and Senator Bernie Sanders (who is also a leading defender of the VHA).

Overall, the VHA employs 300,000 people, a third of whom are veterans themselves. Because caregivers are salaried, they have little incentive to over-treat patients. And, as a large-scale public agency, the VHA can negotiate with pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies to secure prices lower than private hospital chains get.

This combination of "socialized medicine," negotiated prices, and a salaried workforce heavily represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is not popular in a Republican Congress or in the Trump White House.

Earlier this summer, both attacked the due process rights of AFGE members by passing the "VA Accountability Act." As the AFL-CIO notes, this draconian measure, backed by some Democrats, eliminates "any guarantee that employees will feel safe speaking out against mismanagement or to protect patient safety." According to the federation, it "destroys grievance procedures that have been successfully used throughout the federal government to provide protection against arbitrary treatment."

Such union-busting legislation -- and more currently under consideration by Congress -- has been a longtime objective of right-wing Republicans and the "Concerned Veterans of America." CVA is an astro-turf group, funded by the Koch brothers, which has gained policy-making influence within the VA since Trump's election. While CVA has few actual members, it has been quite successful in promoting negative coverage of the VHA in the media, including the New York Times and NPR.

Unlike traditional veterans organizations (American Legion, VFW, Disabled American Veterans), CVA hates the VHA and would like to see it totally privatized.

Campaign to Save the VA

To resist this outsourcing threat, VHA union members and their allies have launched a multi-front campaign. They have held dozens of town hall meetings, local "Save the VA" rallies, and protests with labor and veterans organizations in California, Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, New Mexico, Tennessee, Montana, Ohio, and Colorado. More protests are scheduled in October. Such activity, throughout the federal government, has helped AFGE sign up 5,000 new members since January.

Bay Area AFGE activists joined fellow VHA staffers, their patients, and other concerned veterans at a speak-out in San Francisco attended by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Michael Blecker, a leader of Swords to Plowshares who served in Vietnam, warned that local programs to reduce homelessness among veterans were at risk of being curtailed.

Pelosi argued that GOP critics care little about improving VHA services or reducing their cost. "The people who want to privatize the VA don't want to make it better," she said. "They want to make a buck."

In its critique of privatization, Fighting for Veterans Healthcare, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, notes that VHA hospital budgets are already stretched thin because of chronic underfunding. As the financial burden of paying for more costly private care increases, the group argues, in-house staff shortages will worsen, specialized research and treatment programs will be cut, demoralized employees will leave, and "the VA will become a shell of itself."

At the Denver VA medical center, where workers rallied against privatization August 23, AFGE Local 2241 President Bernard Humbles says employee frustration is mounting. "I've had some members that just say, 'I'm done,' and leave because of the overwhelming workload," he said. "We need to fill these positions."

Bernie Sanders, former chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the Senate and longtime defender of the VHA, has introduced legislation to reduce staff shortages by allocating $5 billion to new hiring. But Secretary for Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin, who served in the Obama administration, is under White House and Congressional pressure to expand a program called "Choice" instead.

Created by Congress in 2014, Choice allows veterans who have to travel 40 miles or more to the nearest VHA facility, or who face appointment delays longer than 30 days, to use private providers instead. Federal reimbursement of these private hospitals and doctors has already drained billions from the VHA. A recent internal report revealed a pattern of over-payments to TriWest and Health Net, two private insurers hired to set up outside provider networks and process the Choice program's reimbursement claims.

Meanwhile, as a Rand Corporation study found in 2015, actual wait times at the VHA are shorter than in the private sector, and the quality of veterans' care is equal to or superior than that received by private hospital patients.

An Outsourcing Gold Mine 

Nevertheless, Republicans seek a wholesale expansion of VHA outsourcing, to create a gold mine for the health care industry. Their goal is to steer more veterans toward non-VHA providers, including for-profit firms that would fill prescriptions, handle routine visits, or provide out-patient services like audiology and optometry.

The fight to defend quality care for veterans is uniting caregivers on the VHA staff, their patients, other veterans, and concerned community members. The fight also helps expose the ever-widening gap between President Trump's pro-veteran rhetoric and the actual impact of his policies on working class people who have served in the military and, in some cases, voted for him last fall.

At a late September protest at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, AFGE picketers were joined by other unionists, including Navy veteran Tom Edwards, who carried a sign saying, "No Vet Should Wait in Line." A retired postal worker, Edwards told Workday Minnesota that he hears plenty of rhetoric about "supporting our troops." But when they come home and need access to skilled, specialized care like the VHA provides, it's another story. "What's happening in this country is a travesty," he declared.

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Trump and Pence's War on Black Athletes Has Nothing to Do With Sports

Truthout - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 21:00

Like his boss Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence is a lazy racist. Trump's public demands nothing more because they are easily satisfied by the thought of humiliating black and brown people. Last Sunday, Pence spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to fly from Las Vegas to an NFL game in Indiana. His plan? To stage a political stunt where he showed his displeasure towards "uppity" black football players who are protesting police brutality and social injustice in America.

After staying at the football game for several minutes, he left in dramatic fashion. Pence would then announce via the social media platform Twitter that:

I left today's Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.

Donald Trump was very pleased. He seconded Pence's publicity stunt:

I asked VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country. I am proud of him and SecondLadyKaren.

Of course, Pence is no more than a hypocrite and a lapdog. He claims to be upset about "disrespect" towards America's soldiers, yet he serves under a man who called Sen. John McCain -- who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five and a half years, subjected to torture and solitary confinement -- a coward and a loser. Pence's selective outrage is even more obvious (and odious) given that he expressed no anger when Donald Trump insulted Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son, Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed while serving with the US Army in Iraq.

Mike Pence directs terms like "dignify" and "disrespect" toward black athletes who are silently expressing their opinions. Yet, like Donald Trump, he does not lash out at the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville (again) last weekend.

It would seem that for Pence and Trump, black athletes who protest discrimination and racism are more troublesome and more dangerous than white supremacists who make terrorist threats and stage violent rallies where unarmed counter-protesters are injured or killed.

It is obvious that Mike Pence's recent political stunt is part of a larger Trump administration plan: to inflame supporters by ginning up white racial animus towards "disloyal" and "unpatriotic" black and brown Americans. This is the right-wing culture war in miniature. Here, the logic is simple: Since before the founding of America and through to the present, white rage against nonwhites is political fuel that politicians have ignited to win elections and maintain power.

There has been widespread criticism of Trump in the media. But as revealed by recent public opinion data, his white racial resentment strategy is largely working, at least when it comes to the NFL anthem protests.

Why Is This?

In keeping with Trump's playbook, Pence summoned three important concepts in his rebuke of black and brown NFL players. He said "our soldiers," "our Flag" and "our National Anthem." (Neither of the last two is a proper noun, Mr. Vice President.)

Who is the "our"? This signals to a divide between "us" and "them," which channels a form of racial tribalism where to be a "real American" is first and foremost to be "white." Pence's use of "our" is the same as Trump's use of the phrase "our culture" when he speaks about the need to protect monuments that honor the white supremacist breakaway republic known as the Confederate States of America.

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Germany's Dangerous Lean: What the Far-Right Victory Means for the Rest of Europe

Truthout - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 21:00

The German election last month once again secured Chancellor Angela Merkel and her centrist Christian Democratic Union's position in government, but it also heralded the dramatic rise of Germany's populist far-right party, Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), the country's first right extremist group to enter the Bundestag since World War II.

In an unprecedented turn, the AfD -- which was founded in 2013 primarily as a Eurosceptic party, before its deeper xenophobic message took hold -- garnered nearly 13 percent of the national vote, placing third after the CDU and the Social Democratic Party. The bulk of its supporters hailed from formerly Communist-occupied parts of East Germany; according to voters in AfD strongholds, the "Revenge of the East" resulted from Merkel's "lack of respect" for Germans in the region, who accused her CDU of wasting money on immigrants while their local economies crumbled.

What was perhaps most surprising was the sudden influx of support the party received from a large number of former non-voters. Put simply: As in the case of Donald Trump's electoral victory in the U.S. last November, the AfD triumphed in part because many former non-voters were stirred by its virulently racist, anti-immigrant message, and their votes flipped the results.

Amid a flurry of dangerously insensitive comments from its spokespeople -- the most famous was Bjorn Hocke's description of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial as a "Monument of Shame" to the German people -- the AfD experienced an alarming surge of popularity in recent months, running on an entirely reactionary political platform.

During the highly controversial campaign, party leadership openly criticized Angela Merkel's "immigrant welcoming policy." According to campaign promises, the AfD intended to change the German constitution to allow for the immediate deportation of any immigrants who had failed in their asylum appeals, regardless of whether or not their country of origin was deemed safe. In addition, they vowed to try immigrants as young as 12 years old as adults, and to condemn "alternative" lifestyles up to and including what they deemed "Islamification."

Controlling the Message

Also like Trump, the AfD expressed open hostility to mainstream media outlets and focused almost entirely on building up a presence across social media. Operating through Discord channels, YouTube videos and online forums such as Reconquista Germania and Infokrieg, the AfD summoned its most hard core, reactionary supporters to catapult the party into the media spotlight.

In some cases, Bavarian AfD supporters even went so far as to create fake social media accounts, a la the Russians, in order to manipulate Twitter into promoting certain hashtags, or simply to infiltrate opposing groups and harass their users. While AfD supporters hailed the trolling technique as a "groundbreaking" strategy, it revealed a far more disturbing trend taking place throughout Europe.

Across the Old Continent, the left seems to be slowly but surely losing ground. Since 2008, the European Union has been fighting a losing battle to rescue its member states' economies, using elaborate polices that failed to bear fruit and almost tripled the number of people on the brink of deprivation. Meanwhile, parties running on socialist, pro-worker platforms have begun to fade from existence; organizations like the Italian and Greek Socialist Parties (PSI and PASOK, respectively) are increasingly irrelevant despite their once historic impact on their countries' politics.

There's a reason for this. The popularity of those left-leaning parties hinged not only on the presence of a strong working class but also a burgeoning middle class -- both of which have been greatly diminished, if not virtually dismantled over the past decade due to Brussels' over-reaching policies. It comes as little surprise that Europeans should then pick the side that promises to tear down the failed leadership of the past -- even if it brings with it the racist rhetoric of the bad old days of the 20th century.

And yet, those who are peddling their toxic, xenophobic rhetoric seem also to lack staying power. Since its inception, the AfD has been clearly divided across a "moderate" and an "extremist" side, with its spokespeople going off on wild tangential rants that have in equal parts been supported and condemned by the party's leadership. Surprisingly, Frauke Petry, a key member of the AfD's caucus, resigned from her position mere hours before the conclusion of the federal elections, without giving prior notice. According to Alice Weidel, a member of the extremist wing of the AfD, Petry's act was "hard to beat in terms of irresponsibility... [She did well to leave]... to prevent further harm."

There also appears to be considerable regret among AfD's voters -- only 34 percent of whom said they experienced no regret after casting their vote for the unorthodox rightwing party. Alexander Gauland, one of the party's leaders, announced that the AfD will keep true to its word and "hound" the CDU in the Bunderstag in order to curb its pro-immigration and EU-centric policies. In response, Merkel, currently in her fourth term as Chancellor, replied: "I don't think so. There are of course differences ... but AfD will have no influence.

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