Counterpunch Articles

“Your Transaction Has Been Canceled”: Lessons in Lebanon’s Economy

Photograph Source: Shakeeb Al-Jabri – CC BY-SA 2.0

I sniffed something was wrong in Lebanon when the central bank governor Riad Salame announced to us all that there were plenty of dollars in the system. No shortages. No tightening of the purse strings. I still have the papers with his announcement on page one.

Both before, during and after the 1975-1990 civil war, you’ve been able to pay for anything here in Lebanon in US dollars: dinner bills, rent, militias, guns (during the war), cars, airline tickets, groceries. The Lebanese pound fell amid the conflict but settled afterwards – courtesy of the country’s billionaire prime minister Rafiq Hariri – at 1,500 “lebs” to the dollar.

And everyone was happy. You knew that the cheerful local currency, splashed with colourful cedar trees, Roman ruins and Phoenician figurines, was interchangeable with the greenback. General Grant’s face was equal to 75,000 lebs. We even combined them in our change.

Until I walked up the road to my local ATM last week, inserted my bank card, demanded $400, was given the usual warning that this would attract an extra $5 from the machine – and was then presented with a terse voice message: “Your transaction has been cancelled.” The accent was American, of course.

I tried again, at $200. Same problem.

I’ve always been enthralled by the linguistics of banking. A “transaction” has held a certain thrall for me. A transaction should surely be the purchase of a property, the buying of shares, the takeover of a mega company. But by the end of my miserable ATM trip, I put in for 400,000 Lebanese pounds ($266) and was treated to a wad of those beautiful Lebanese notes with their pictures of the Baalbek ruins, museum masterpieces and, indeed, illustrations of Salame’s Lebanese central bank. My “transaction” had been completed.

In other words, there were not many dollars in the system. And this is where the Lebanese economic story starts to go downhill.

Without spraying readers with figures, the Lebanese government took out so many post-war loans – usually with the help of its old mandate ruler, France – that it ended up with a budget which effectively had to supply 80 per cent of its worth in servicing the national debt. Massive corruption over decades meant that huge amounts of money were spent on supplying basic needs to the Lebanese economic structure which, in sane countries, could have been realised with sensible taxes and restraints.

It is an absolute mystery to me, for example, why since I arrived in Lebanon in 1976 there has been a minimum power cut in Beirut; every day, without exception, for three hours. And oddly, like all Lebanese, I’ve come to accept this ridiculous situation in the same way that most people acknowledge dawn or sunset.

Three whole hours without an elevator, or a lamp to read by, war or no war. The Lebanese government actually sailed into Beirut a Turkish sea-borne power station and nothing changed. I spent lunch yesterday with two brilliant Lebanese businessmen, and even they could not fully explain to me how the “structural problems” of the Lebanese economy meant that my electricity would be cut off the moment I went home.

The best quotation came from Marwan Iskandar, a true Lebanese “bon viveur” who over a fine chocolate cake gave me his new bookCentral Banking in Uncertain Times: Lebanon and the US. He was a student of St Antony’s College, Oxford. He wrote the following wonderful words to me in the foreword: “A book for your evaluation at a time of crisis in exchange in Lebanon. Even Lebanese smugglers are not paying back their profits in Lebanese banks. Welcome to Lebanon, Robert.”

The serious side to all this, of course, is that the Lebanese pound is wobbling. Two weeks ago, it touched 1,600 to the dollar. Right now, it’s just over the 1,500 rate again.

The central bank has arranged that dollars will be available for the purchase of oil, medicine and wheat – buying fuel with those pretty bits of paper with Roman columns on the front doesn’t work. And a number of very damaging – and violent – strikes by tanker companies and garages have been averted. Hospitals can still care for their patients, people can still eat their soft, gently smelling bread.

It has always amazed me that the most brilliantly commercial people in the Middle East – the Lebanese, remember, are the original Phoenician merchants – are so capable of destroying their own economy. We might also recall TS Eliot’s Death by Water, in which readers are invited to reflect upon the picked-apart dead mariner “Phlebas the Phoenician”.

Being a conspiratorial journalist, of course, I have other thoughts. The US is still trying to destroy the Assad regime in Syria. And the Islamic Republic of Iran. And Iran’s Lebanese militia asset, Hezbollah – once more, this week, accused of murder.

Is this what underlays the frightening economic undertow? Does fuel pass through Lebanon to Syria – as well as via an Iranian tanker to Banias? We all know that currency moves between Damascus and Beirut (after all, many Syrians are in fact Lebanese, and vice-versa).

This is not a trick to fool dumb Americans; it is a direct result of the post-First World War colonial mandate system that divided Lebanon from Syria and cut hundreds of thousands of families apart. Thus does history once more crunch up the poor old Middle East. And produce that wretched American voice on my ATM machine. “Your transaction has been cancelled.”


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Polling the Warren Factor

Photograph Source: Senate Democrats – CC BY 2.0

Contrarily, most Democratic primary polls in the last week to ten days, including the average of polls both as I calculate them daily here under the 10at10 label as well as in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average, show a race between Warren and Biden that has tightened dramatically since the big public revelation on September 24 regarding Donald Trump, Ukraine and the Bidens, and potential impeachment proceedings. My average as of yesterday morning at ten o’clock eastern had just a 0.9% spread between Warren and Biden, while RCP showed just a 0.3% gap between the two. While RCP also shows a 2% drop for Bernie Sanders in the relevant period, my averaging shows no real change (15.8% on September 23 versus 15.9% yesterday) to Sanders’ standing over the two-week period. 10at10 did have Bernie at 17.4% last Monday, which could suggest a brief rise and then dip before and after his bout with hospitalization and heart surgery. It also could just be a noisy reflection of which polling firms were in the field and when.

Under the hood in critical crosstabs relating to race or ethnicity and age, there has also been very little change for Morning Consult. Two weeks ago, Biden led Sanders in second and Warren in third with African American voters at 39.7% to 21.3% to 11.2% respectively (n=3654), while this week’s crosstabs show 42.2% to 20.1% to 11.2% (n=3495) with the same ordering. Among respondents who identify as Hispanic, Sanders leads Biden and Warren 28.8% to 25.4% to 13.6% in today’s results (n=1919) versus two weeks ago when Sanders was at 28.3%, Biden 23.3%, and Warren 14.7% with respondents who identified as Hispanic (n=2051). Warren did advance somewhat with white respondents who do not identify as Hispanic, moving from 22.0% two weeks ago to 25.0% over the past week.

The other fault line, perhaps even more stark, in the Democratic primary is by age. Morning Consult breaks things down, with high respondent levels in each, into five categories (18-29, 30-44, 45-54, 55-64, and 65+) as charted below. The under 45-years-old versus 45-years-old plus categories all told went from 30.2% Sanders, 22.0% Biden, 16.3% Warren (n=7456) for the younger set two weeks ago to 30.6%, 22.7%, 16.7% (n=7000) in today’s release. There was also little remarkable change for voters forty-five and older overall with a 39.2% Biden, 22.5% Warren, 10.8% Sanders split two weeks ago (n=9921) and a very similar 40.0%, 23.6%, 10.4% (n=9529) ordering today

Morning Consult’s steady results (they’ve shown much less dramatic change week-to-week, month to month than other polling outfits throughout 2019) are likely attributable to consistent methodology and weighting for a very large sample sized poll effort. Morning Consult’s overall method is to contact around 5,000 Americans each day online with a long series of questions and then to report those results in various articles and outlets and to particular clients in a weekly format that narrows things down to the relevant subsampling with extremely detailed demographic reporting. The advantage to this way of polling is that each sub-category is itself a reasonably sample-sized product. Morning Consult, for instance, interviewed more people in the Spanish language (n=133) this past week than the entire subsampling of people of color for several recent, highly regarded live caller polls.

In last week’s article, I noted that there is now a significant 10% difference between online and phone only polling in Iowa for Sanders in particular. Is what we are seeing now a similar difference between, for instance, people more likely to watch less television news while more likely to respond to a poll online rather than one by phone, on the one hand, and polls that better capture those who are, on average, older, spend more time following the details of network news, and answer the phone? Unlikely. For one thing, Morning Consult keeps track of support by primary news source each week. Those too show little change, at least in comparison between September 23-29 results and previous similar Morning Consult reporting. Over the last several election cycles, furthermore, there is no clear indication that online versus phone only polls are more or less right or wrong, all things considered.

One possibility is that smaller sample sized polls, some of which change their weighting substantially week-to-week (YouGov) are herding toward a particular outcome rather than capturing a genuine shift in the electorate. At this point, we have very little way of knowing who is right until voting an caucusing begins in just under four months.

For now, there is in fact a rather stark difference, even among relatively good polls. There is no agreed upon set of standards for the best way to weight even a genuinely random sample for a Democratic primary. Reasonably respected polling has had Biden anywhere from 21%-33% in the last few weeks, Warren at anywhere from 15-28%, and Bernie Sanders from 10-22%. Simply averaging national or state polls may tell us very little at this point given how bad polling was for the 2016 Democratic primary.

For these reasons and several others, my modelling of the Democratic primary takes a more in-depth approach to modelling each district and state based on a wide range of factors including national polling, state polling, how the district or state voted in the 2016 primary, how polling fared by state in the 2016 primary, and the demographic make-up of each district, comparing it to what is known from polling, particularly more in-depth polling by age and race or ethnicity, about each of the top candidates.

That modelling continues to suggest a three-way race with last night’s update again showing each of Warren, Sanders, and Biden likely winning hundreds of delegates through Super Tuesday and pushing toward a contested convention.

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Owyhee Ecocide: Anatomy of BLM’s Ancient Juniper Forest Destruction

For many years, BLM had plotted a massive deforestation project aimed at destroying ancient juniper trees living on Juniper Mountain in the Owyhee Canyonlands. The mountain is a long high ridge cut by headwater drainages of the Middle and North Fork Owyhee Rivers and Red Canyon Creek. Its right by the Oregon border, and has splendid views of the sagebrush country below, with vistas extending to Steens Mountain in the west and the Owyhee Plateau to the east.

As summer ended, news of an imminent 13,000 acre prescribed burn in the Trout Springs area of Juniper Mountain seeped out. I drove out to the site and was horrified by what I saw. Since I was last there in spring 2018, BLM contractor crews had sawed down younger trees across thousands of acres of the mountain, even clambering over cliff breaks and on top of rock outcrops. The cut trees were tinder dry with resinous needles red-brown and covered the ground surface all around old trees. It would be impossible for BLM to burn and not kill many thousands of ancient junipers. It was clear that was precisely BLM’s intention. Scattered patch burns, claimed to be blacklining, had already been ignited last spring in a trial run killing old growth. I returned to Boise, deluged the BLM Manager with e-mails and photos and told her the Fuels staff were clearly planning to kill vast numbers of ancient trees. She said she was surprised that older trees would burn.

Inside one of BLM’s ancient tree kills from the spring.

Old trees awaiting their fate, surrounded by expanses of dry cut trees. Juniper forests normally have very little downed wood. When set on fire, the dry trees and needle resins produce extreme heat killing or igniting surrounding live trees, scalding soils and shattering rock chunks off boulders and cliff faces.

I returned to Juniper Mountain days later, accompanied by Dave Hayes, a retired forester, to reconnoiter further. BLM had already started burning. Fire crews were amassed on a meadow. A brief rain squall had downed the contractor helicopter used for napalming the forest by shooting out flammable gel-drenched ping pong balls as it flies over.

We drove on, past trees blackened, smoldering and dying. We were soon blocked by a BLM truck and forbidden to pass by Lance Okeson, BLM’s fuels person in charge of the burn. A BLM law enforcement officer was summoned on the radio. While waiting for the law to show up, Okeson said “You can do what you want but you’re not going to get very far Katie”. I thought to myself: What kind of monster gloats over his power to destroy beautiful ancient trees?

The BLM lawman finally arrived, decked out in near-combat gear. We were loudly asked half a dozen times if we knew the Owyhee County sheriff had closed the area to public entry. We said No, and that there weren’t closure signs posted. Okeson mumbled “we’re working on that”. We were ordered to leave immediately and not come back until the closure was lifted, or we would be issued citations. We were followed off the mountain.

This beautiful montane western juniper forest had long been targeted by cattlemen and their BLM range enablers and cronies. Ranchers covet the grass protected by branches at the base of junipers, have always hated the trees, and pressured BLM to eradicate them. Smaller agency burns, tree cutting, a chaining, along with the cowboy lightning of past rancher burning attempts and some wildfires nursed along by BLM had removed trees over the years. There had been CCC era cutting – with telltale old stumps and rusty cans scattered across the mountain. A wave of forest attacks took place during the heyday of government-funded juniper and sagebrush community destruction of the 1960s-1970s. But nothing at the scale BLM proposed in 2012 when it released NEPA EA documents for the Trout Springs and Pole Creek grazing allotments. The EAs included “rangeland health” assessments that blamed the native western junipers as a primary cause of lands flunking the health standards. Besides dealing directly with grazing, the EAs included a plethora of juniper “treatments” – cutting, girdling, jackpot burning (burning concentrations of cut down dry trees – evidently this is quite a rush, hence the name), pile burning and general conflagration. The sure cure for the ailing range was radical deforestation across this landscape.

Juniper forests are naturally the most fireproof areas here. Forested sites retain moisture longer, shade and cool the ground surface, and block the wind. Grass is more likely to burn than sage, and sage more likely to burn than junipers. This is especially the case in the rugged mountainous terrain with myriad rock outcroppings and intricately cut canyons, where rock and cliff outcroppings serve as natural firebreaks. The rugged terrain had allowed magnificent stands of juniper and old trees to develop, branches adorned with chartreuse lichens. The trees are impossible to age, as they invariably rot in the center. Western juniper can live to be 1600 years old. Trees here were undoubtedly 300, 400, 500 years old, and some were pre-Columbian. Each old tree was shaped by time, the elements, its neighbors, and was distinctive in its own right.


The old trees have a singular presence that still reaches out and touches us after their death. Their skeletons stand as testimony to BLM’s lies and ecocide.

The cores of ancient trees are rotten, dry and full of air, pockets with only the dense outer live wood containing moisture. Once ignited – poof – only the outer shell remains. The heat of the fire generated by burning the carpet of tinder dry cut trees also killed many old trees that did not directly ignite, with all needles on a tree immediately turning brown, and some whole tree foliage a ghostly gray. BLM ground crews hunted down and burned up individual old trees when there were no cut dried trees to carry a fire.

The shell of an ancient tree – live wood around the perimeter is the only thing that didn’t vaporize. This tree was by an access road, apparently sawed off in a post mortem.

Alternate Reality Feeds the BLM Treatment Machine

A web of federal agencies and profiteering NGOs have spent many years developing a bizarre alternate range reality fed by endless federal grants and stacks of circular reasoning range papers. BLM used to claim that the only place juniper trees were supposed to grow was rocky outcrops and shallow soil areas. That was before the huge windfall of Fuels and Sage-Grouse funding in the past 15 years. Now hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually in a mind-boggling deforestation campaign raging across the West. Trees are an enemy anywhere they exist.

Based on this alternate reality, BLM’s grazing land health assessments fault the trees for nearly very land problem under the sun. The goal is to maximize cattle forage grass production by using the trees as a scapegoat. The assessments have gotten ever more warped since their inception in Bruce Babbitt’s Range Reform of the Clinton era.

BLM, cattle industry consultants, USDA NRCS (funnels funds to ranchers for cow projects- fences, water, tree killing), the Nature Conservancy (gets lucrative government contracts to generate fire intervals and other claptrap justifying major human intervention in wild lands ecosystems across the West and also provides feel-good cover for the livestock industry), Land Grant college range departments, and more recently the USGS – all have been involved in concocting this alternate reality. They churn out fire, ecosite, state/transition and other models of idealized and “desired” plant communities to justify massive deforestation. It doesn’t matter what the overwhelming visual and ecological evidence on the land shows. The models, and BLM’s NEPA documents, ignore that.

The models are blind to the historical record. The earliest Juniper Mountain General Land Office survey was conducted in 1914 (later than surveys because of little settlement value in the remote rugged area). I and colleagues had reviewed and submitted these records to BLM when appealing the EAs. The surveyors had found old juniper trees across Juniper Mountain. Surveyors arduously laid out what would become section lines using long lengths of chain, recorded compass bearings at specific intervals and used bearing trees in the descriptions. They scribed (carved) marks on the trees and recorded the diameter at breast height. They often noted the general vegetation that settlement in the area might exploit. BLM’s bogus models are in denial of the historical plant community record, as shown in Interior’s own surveyor records.


Juniper Mountain has long been known as a lawless region. An 1860s era silver mine boom in the Owyhee mountains to the north didn’t touch this lair of horse thieves. Recent ranching operations have been notorious for lawlessness, including when the Trout Springs grazing EA process was taking place. Mike Hanley, a Trout Springs permittee, had been such an egregious cattle trespasser that BLM actually canceled his grazing permit – a prolonged process of legal wrangling under the agency’s grazing regulations and institutional and political pressures that circle the wagons around welfare ranchers at all costs. Another local rancher owned a cow sale yard in Nevada. He trucked in hundreds of old cows and dumped them out all over the mountain at a time when allotments were temporarily closed as a result of litigation over BLM foot-dragging on long-promised grazing evaluations. A decade before that, Owyhee ranchers had poached 4 of the largest bull elk killed in Idaho at night right by the Trout Springs exclosure on Juniper Mountain.

Now the current Idaho BLM Director is John Ruhs. I had encountered Ruhs encouraging and aiding abusive public lands ranchers in Nevada in the Argenta and North Buffalo allotments during the Obama administration. He also ignored blatant rancher violations of the Wild Horse and Burro Act in Fish Creek allotment where he attempted to humiliate the Battle Mountain District Manager who had dared stand up to a rancher scofflaw. That incident is described in Chris Ketcham’s This Land. The Trout Springs EA that justified the Owyhee juniper killing claimed shallow soil areas and older trees stands would be avoided. Instead, these were often primary sites where BLM’s aerial napalming and ground drip torches focused. With Ruhs at the helm, the fuels and range staffs have free rein to destroy whatever is their pleasure in service to the livestock industry, ignoring any NEPA document commitments made to the public.

Silent Winter

The ongoing West-wide destruction of juniper forests represents a tremendous loss of biodiversity, especially migratory bird diversity. The forests come alive with birds in the winter when Townsend’s solitaires, American robins and at times cedar waxwings subsist on juniper berries. Solitaires establish intraspecific territories where they sing and spar with other solitaires in defense of berry-laden trees. Flocks of robins wheel through the air, descending on trees. Cooper’s hawks flit through the forest, and lurk for prey. Solitaires have been documented returning to the same place in winter. Such sadness to think of a bird returning to a winter home site and finding its habitat senselessly obliterated.

I returned to Juniper Mountain last week to view the burn aftermath. A cold snap brought thunderstorms and then snow overnight. Some solitaires had returned for the winter. They were calling and singing bits of broken song. Burned areas were silent and lifeless, except for flickers digging a fleeting bonanza of ant larvae roasted by the fire out of collapsed mounds amid scalded soils.

FOIA documents show that BLM knew full well that it would destroy habitat for a broad diversity of nesting birds in the mature and old growth Owyhee juniper forest. The forest had been nesting habitat for hermit thrushes (renowned for their melodic song) whose presence here was a testimony to the structural complexity and stability of the forest, and to goshawks, mountain bluebirds, black-throated gray warblers, kestrels, mountain chickadees, ash-throated flycatchers and many others. There is greater nesting bird diversity in juniper communities than in sagebrush.

No one should believe that BLM cares about sagebrush species, either, including sage-grouse which are so often used as an excuse for spending huge sums on deforestation projects. The burn targeted the biggest and densest patches of sagebrush habitat where Brewer’s sparrow and Green-tailed towhee nested, along with the best stands of old mountain mahogany.

WSAs Released in Owyhee Initiative Legislation

Nearly all the lands on Juniper Mountain had been inside BLM Wilderness Study Areas until the passage of the Owyhee Initiative (OPLMA) wilderness bill, touted as a product of epic collaboration. In 2009, the bill released three Wilderness Study Areas – Middle Fork Owyhee River, Little Willow and West Fork Red Canyon Creek WSAs that comprised the wildest areas of the Canyonlands. The bill was a result of environmental groups letting themselves be led around by county supremacy and Agenda 21 zealot Fred Kelly Grant and the cattlemen. The ranchers dictated what lands were allowed to become wilderness.

Surprisingly, after the WSAs were released, some concerned BLM staff had gone back and conducted new “Lands with Wilderness Characteristics” inventories. They determined that indeed all the areas contained wilderness-worthy attributes. Screening cover provided by the juniper forests was an important factor in the determinations. If the cover were to be destroyed, those evaluations may be re-visited.

Shock Doctrine, Reset, Piles of Wood Chips 2-3 Feet Deep

Government funded juniper killing range scientists have recently used the term

shock in describing chaining, masticating, bull hogging and “prescribed fire” “treatments”, for example this posse of authors:

“Reduction of woody vegetation represented a “shock” to the system each time a treatment was applied to a plot. This shock can be envisioned as a wave with magnitude and duration that differed for each variable measured.” McIver et al. Sage-step Project.

The Sage-step project was developed to justify expensive manipulation “treatment” of woody plant communities, ostensibly to benefit sagebrush species, with study sites often selected to achieve fore-ordained research results.

A new twist in this revealing terminology is used by BLM’s Okeson in the video of the helicopter strafing the Trout Springs juniper forest with napalm. Okeson states: “We need a total reset”.

In an Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission (arm of Idaho ranching industry) article, Okeson describes why attacking the juniper forests of the Owyhees merely with masticator machines grinding up whole trees and spitting them out as piles of wood chips won’t work:

“We’re trying to get after it on a landscape scale,” says Lance Okeson, Boise BLM Fuels Specialist.   “Mastication seems like a good technique when you are trying to open up smaller meadow areas, but on a landscape scale, it may not be practical.”

Trying to grind up all the juniper trees on Juniper Mountain, for example, would leave wood chips covering the ground “2-3 feet deep,” Okeson said.”

Yes indeed. A complex thriving native forest thriving without human intervention and combatting the climate crisis. BLM chose to release the carbon stored in the trees into the atmosphere, feeding climate change.

In the 1990s, I had worked on the habitat program of the Idaho Game Department. My boss had dealt years before with BLM range people involved in the many forms of destruction of sagebrush for cattle forage. He had seen how they lusted to burn up sagebrush. He called them pyromaniacs. Nothing has changed with today’s full-bore assault on junipers.

Cattle-driven ecocide in the Amazon. Cattle-driven ecocide in the Gran Chaco. Cattle driven ecocide in the American West. The end result is the same. Here the U.S. government is openly and lavishly funding radical deforestation, justifying it with reams of propaganda claiming to be making the land “healthy”, saving sage-grouse, or preventing fires. This all is fortified by crazy models and range myths that generate an alternate reality where the trees should not exist. Killing the ancient Owyhee junipers was also an attempt to try to extinguish the stark visual evidence that this scheme is based on bald-faced lies.

Katie Fite is a biologist and Public Lands Director of WildLands Defense in Boise, Idaho.


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Guns For Hire: the US Shouldn’t Be Using the Military to Police the Globe

Photograph Source: Lance Cpl. Daniel J. Klein, U.S. Marine Corps – Public Domain

“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes… known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

— James Madison

Eventually, all military empires fall and fail by spreading themselves too thin and spending themselves to death.

It happened in Rome.

It’s happening again.

At the height of its power, even the mighty Roman Empire could not stare down a collapsing economy and a burgeoning military. Prolonged periods of war and false economic prosperity largely led to its demise. As historian Chalmers Johnson predicts:

The fate of previous democratic empires suggests that such a conflict is unsustainable and will be resolved in one of two ways. Rome attempted to keep its empire and lost its democracy. Britain chose to remain democratic and in the process let go its empire. Intentionally or not, the people of the United States already are well embarked upon the course of non-democratic empire.

The American Empire—with its endless wars waged by U.S. military servicepeople who have been reduced to little more than guns for hire: outsourced, stretched too thin, and deployed to far-flung places to police the globe—is approaching a breaking point.

War has become a huge money-making venture, and America, with its vast military empire and its incestuous relationship with a host of international defense contractors, is one of its best buyers and sellers. In fact, as Reuters reports, “[President] Trump has gone further than any of his predecessors to act as a salesman for the U.S. defense industry.”

Under Trump’s leadership, the U.S. military is dropping a bomb every 12 minutes.

This follows on the heels of President Obama, the so-called antiwar candidate and Nobel Peace Prize winner who waged war longer than any American president and whose targeted-drone killings resulted in at least 1.3 million lives lost to the U.S.-led war on terror.

Most recently, the Trump Administration signaled its willingness to put the lives of American troops on the line in order to guard Saudi Arabia’s oil resources. Roughly 200 American troops will join the 500 troops already stationed in Saudi Arabia. That’s in addition to the 60,000 U.S. troops that have been deployed throughout the Middle East for decades.

As The Washington Post points out, “The United States is now the world’s largest producer — and its reliance on Saudi imports has dropped dramatically, including by 50 percent in the past two years alone.”

So if we’re not protecting the oil for ourselves, whose interests are we protecting?

The military industrial complex is calling the shots, of course, and profit is its primary objective.

The military-industrial complex is also the world’s largest employer.

America has long had a penchant for endless wars that empty our national coffers while fattening those of the military industrial complex.

Aided and abetted by the U.S government, the American military-industrial complex has erected an empire unsurpassed in history in its breadth and scope, one dedicated to conducting perpetual warfare throughout the earth.

Although the U.S. constitutes only 5% of the world’s population, America boasts almost 50% of the world’s total military expenditure, spending more on the military than the next 19 biggest spending nations combined. Indeed, the Pentagon spends more on war than all 50 states combined spend on health, education, welfare, and safety.

Unfortunately, this level of war-mongering doesn’t come cheap to the taxpayers who are forced to foot the bill.

Having been co-opted by greedy defense contractors, corrupt politicians and incompetent government officials, America’s expanding military empire is bleeding the country dry at a rate of more than $32 million per hour.

In fact, the U.S. government has spent more money every five seconds in Iraq than the average American earns in a year.

With more than 800 U.S. military bases in 80 countries, the U.S. is now operating in 40 percent of the world’s nations at a cost of $160 to $200 billion annually.

Despite the fact that Congress has only officially declared war eleven times in the nation’s short history, the last time being during World War II, the United States has been at war for all but 21 of the past 243 years.

It’s cost the American taxpayer more than $4.7 trillion since 2001 to fight the government’s so-called “war on terrorism.” That’s in addition to “$127 billion in the last 17 years to train police, military and border patrol agents in many countries and to develop antiterrorism education programs, among other activities.” That does not include the cost of maintaining and staffing the 800-plus U.S. military bases spread around the globe.

The cost of perpetuating those endless wars and military exercises around the globe is expected to push the total bill upwards of $12 trillion by 2053.

The U.S. government is spending money it doesn’t have on a military empire it can’t afford.

As investigative journalist Uri Friedman puts it, for more than 15 years now, the United States has been fighting terrorism with a credit card, “essentially bankrolling the wars with debt, in the form of purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds by U.S.-based entities like pension funds and state and local governments, and by countries like China and Japan.”

War is not cheap, but it becomes outrageously costly when you factor in government incompetence, fraud, and greedy contractors.

For example, a leading accounting firm concluded that one of the Pentagon’s largest agencies “can’t account for hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of spending.”

Unfortunately, the outlook isn’t much better for the spending that can be tracked.

Consider that the government lost more than $160 billion to waste and fraud by the military and defense contractors. With paid contractors often outnumbering enlisted combat troops, the American war effort dubbed as the “coalition of the willing” has quickly evolved into the “coalition of the billing,” with American taxpayers forced to cough up billions of dollars for cash bribes, luxury bases, a highway to nowhere, faulty equipment, salaries for so-called “ghost soldiers,” and overpriced anything and everything associated with the war effort, including a $640 toilet seat and a $7600 coffee pot.

A government audit found that defense contractor Boeing has been massively overcharging taxpayers for mundane parts, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in overspending. As the report noted, the American taxpayer paid:

$71 for a metal pin that should cost just 4 cents; $644.75 for a small gear smaller than a dime that sells for $12.51: more than a 5,100 percent increase in price. $1,678.61 for another tiny part, also smaller than a dime, that could have been bought within DoD for $7.71: a 21,000 percent increase. $71.01 for a straight, thin metal pin that DoD had on hand, unused by the tens of thousands, for 4 cents: an increase of over 177,000 percent.

That price gouging has become an accepted form of corruption within the American military empire is a sad statement on how little control “we the people” have over our runaway government.

There’s a good reason why “bloated,” “corrupt” and “inefficient” are among the words most commonly applied to the government, especially the Department of Defense and its contractors. Price gouging has become an accepted form of corruption within the American military empire.

It’s not just the American economy that is being gouged, unfortunately.

Driven by a greedy defense sector, the American homeland has been transformed into a battlefield with militarized police and weapons better suited to a war zone. Trump, no different from his predecessors, has continued to expand America’s military empire abroad and domestically, calling on Congress to approve billions more to hire cops, build more prisons and wage more profit-driven war-on-drugs/war-on-terrorism/war-on-crime programs that pander to the powerful money interests (military, corporate and security) that run the Deep State and hold the government in its clutches.

Mind you, this isn’t just corrupt behavior. It’s deadly, downright immoral behavior.

Essentially, in order to fund this burgeoning military empire that polices the globe, the U.S. government is prepared to bankrupt the nation, jeopardize our servicemen and women, increase the chances of terrorism and blowback domestically, and push the nation that much closer to eventual collapse.

Making matters worse, taxpayers are being forced to pay $1.4 million per hour to provide U.S. weapons to countries that can’t afford them. As Mother Jones reports, the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Finance program “opens the way for the US government to pay for weapons for other countries—only to ‘promote world peace,’ of course—using your tax dollars, which are then recycled into the hands of military-industrial-complex corporations.”

Clearly, our national priorities are in desperate need of an overhauling.

As Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez rightly asks:

Why throw money at defense when everything is falling down around us? Do we need to spend more money on our military (about $600 billion this year) than the next seven countries combined? Do we need 1.4 million active military personnel and 850,000 reserves when the enemy at the moment — ISIS — numbers in the low tens of thousands? If so, it seems there’s something radically wrong with our strategy. Should 55% of the federal government’s discretionary spending go to the military and only 3% to transportation when the toll in American lives is far greater from failing infrastructure than from terrorism? Does California need nearly as many active military bases (31, according to as it has UC and state university campuses (33)? And does the state need more active duty military personnel (168,000, according to Governing magazine) than public elementary school teachers (139,000)?

The illicit merger of the global armaments industry and the Pentagon that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us against more than 50 years ago has come to represent perhaps the greatest threat to the nation’s fragile infrastructure today.

The government is destabilizing the economy, destroying the national infrastructure through neglect and a lack of resources, and turning taxpayer dollars into blood money with its endless wars, drone strikes and mounting death tolls.

This is exactly the scenario Eisenhower warned against when he cautioned the citizenry not to let the profit-driven war machine endanger our liberties or democratic processes:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

We failed to heed Eisenhower’s warning.

The illicit merger of the armaments industry and the government that Eisenhower warned against has come to represent perhaps the greatest threat to the nation today.

What we have is a confluence of factors and influences that go beyond mere comparisons to Rome. It is a union of Orwell’s 1984 with its shadowy, totalitarian government—i.e., fascism, the union of government and corporate powers—and a total surveillance state with a military empire extended throughout the world.

This is how tyranny rises and freedom falls.

As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the growth of and reliance on militarism as the solution for our problems both domestically and abroad bodes ill for the constitutional principles which form the basis of the American experiment in freedom.

After all, a military empire ruled by martial law does not rely on principles of equality and justice for its authority but on the power of the sword. As author Aldous Huxley warned: “Liberty cannot flourish in a country that is permanently on a war footing, or even a near-war footing. Permanent crisis justifies permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of the central government.”

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The Real Venezuela: Dignified, Indivisible and Truthful

Photograph Source: U.S. Department of State from United States – Public Domain

All those wondering who is in charge in Venezuela, should stop reading the biased and confusing corporate media and should look at who represents the country at the United Nations. The UN is not a perfect institution but it is one that is clear on the issue of membership despite powerful attempts at obfuscating that clarity.

Much media effort has been put in creating the illusion that the legitimate Venezuela is the one “ruled” by a self-appointed (read, unelected) interim (read, for an undefined term) president that presides with no army, no cabinet, no judicial and no recognized congress. His name is hardly recognized in Venezuela were it not for the unrelenting promotion by his major supporter, the United States government.

As we are still grappling with an old geopolitical world model that has left us with divided regions and countries, North vs. South, East vs. West, and Western vs. the rest, now we can add a new type of division, Real vs. Virtual. The “virtual” illusionary Venezuela defined above has no territory that controls, and its supporters have a programmatic agenda that is only based on negating, ignoring and disregarding the reality that surrounds them in the hope that it will go away.

At the UN General Assembly last September there was no ambiguity. The legitimate government of President Nicolas Maduro of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was represented by its Vice President Delcy Rodriguez despite a reported attempt to prevent her from addressing the 74th UNGA. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Ron, and Venezuela’s Ambassador to the UN Samuel Moncada were also part of the Venezuelan delegation.

An undetermined group of delegates walked out of the hall as Rodriguez approached the podium to give her speech. The simultaneous action showed a deliberate intent and possibly prior agreement. More importantly, to a keen observer it showed contempt not against the speaker, as suggested, but against the ideal of an institution that is supposed to be a forum for voicing official positions, disagreements, reclamations and ideologies for the whole world to hear, consider and build upon.

Those delegates were free to walk out and we know that eventually they will end up reading Rodriguez’s speech. However, in the context of the United Nations this was more a statement that they did not accept the spirit of the UN Charter and opted to temporarily exclude themselves from that institution. In doing so, they negated, ignored and disregarded the reality and legitimacy of the United Nations. They superimposed their attitude towards Venezuela on the institution of the UN.

In contrast, Delcy Rodriguez made reference to the UN as the “sacred enclosure for public international law”, and recognized the UN as the space for direct communication without the mediation of compromised media. During her speech she invoked several times the UN Charter by affirming that the unilateral coercive measures (sanctions) imposed by the US on several nations are against the UN Charter. They are indeed. Only “between 2015 and 2019 the US government has imposed more than 350 unilateral coercive measures against Venezuela” including individuals and institutions.

Delcy Rodriguez is a powerful communicator. She has been instrumental in defending Venezuela as the country’s representative at the OAS against the repeated attempts of the organization’s Secretary General to condemn Venezuela for violating the Democratic Charter. Her solid and convincing arguments prevented a majority vote against Venezuela albeit unwittingly forced the creation of the “Lima Group” as a splinter group of that body.

Eventually, Venezuela decided to withdraw from the OAS but the government has consistently defended and abided to the charters of all the international bodies it belongs to. It has become a trademark of the Venezuelan delegates to flag the organization’s Charter whenever they refer to it. In fact, Rodriguez, flagging the UN Charter booklet in her right hand, made her final point, “Venezuela asks for an investigation over all the infamous violations of the UN Charter by the United States.”

In her speech, Rodriguez effectively addressed the US financial system as the root cause of induced economic crisis in the world: “There is a new kind of terror or state terrorism imposed on people that does not use bombs but banks and financial institutions that can simply reach for a key on the keyboard in our digital era.” “It is the [US] Treasury Department the Economic Pentagon that militarizes the international relations…to impose regime changes”. She added that between 2015 and 2018 Venezuela has lost $130 billion that could have been used to satisfy the needs of the population through the “Bolivarian socialist model.”

The Venezuelan Vice President addressed credibly all major issues that affect the Bolivarian socialist model, but perhaps she achieved the greatest score in credibility when she convincingly refuted the accusations of Colombian President Ivan Duque that Nicolas Maduro was directly responsible for his “support for criminal and narcoterrorist groups operating in Venezuela to attack Colombia.” To make his point Duque produced photo “evidence” during his speech at the UNGA. The photos were immediately proven to be taken in Colombia instead. The abrupt dismissal of the Colombian intelligence chief who provided the photos fully confirms one of a long history of lies to discredit the Maduro government.

As Rodriguez said, Venezuela is “dignified and indivisible.” We believe that what distinguishes the real Venezuela from its imaginary illusion created by the US are precisely those qualities in addition to being truthful.

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The Political Realities of Science Work

Photograph Source: Eric Golub – CC BY 2.0

In his recent piece “Geo-engineering is a Scam“, Josue De Luna Navarro points out a fact that has always been true of the engineering profession (and also most other highly refined professions) that its students, first seeking education, and then as graduates seeking employment and lengthy careers, are destined to serve monied patrons, the Golden Rule: “those that have the gold make the rules.” Four to five millennia ago those patrons would have been called “Pharaoh,” and later “king,” “caesar,” “emperor” and “queen,” and in more recent centuries “the company” and “the corporation.” Professional expertise, like high art, has a dependency on patronage by the wealthy, without whose largesse professional ambitions would be nearly fruitless (for there are always some successful independent scientists, like Charles Darwin).

My engineering education and physics career (1968-2007) was funded (besides by my parents paying my tuition and living expenses during my undergraduate years) by U.S. government money (the public) funneled through the military. Most decent paying options for employment after schooling were with manufacturing, electronics or energy corporations, defense (war industry) corporations, and government agencies. A tiny fraction of engineering science jobs were in academia. In any case, all such engineering science employees were servicing the aims of the Big Money: profitability for the corporations, greater military power through advanced technology, and the combination of both as greater global political power for the policy-making elite of the nation. Same as in Khufu’s day.

Because America’s militarism-backed capitalism is fossil fueled, both in my time and Navarro’s the oil and gas industry has been a major buyer and owner of engineering and science talent, as Navarro states. The great challenge for any engineer and scientist working in today’s government-funded paradigm of science professionalism is to try to keep body and soul together through corporate and government (and academic) employment while at the same time trying to produce work that is as much in the public interest as possible. A very difficult ideal to achieve, and not all engineers and scientists even try to. Our engineering professors were reluctant to talk about the political realities of our profession, and our economic captivity by the Big Money and its Capitalist Government, because they saw no alternative to it.

Navarro is right to excoriate the fossil fuel industries’s efforts to corrupt the intellectual integrity of the engineering and physical sciences, by urinating money on our professions’s training academies to drench them in the odor of the narrowly self-serving corporate mindset of fossil fuel burning forever, and for the endless profitability of oil and gas (and coal) extraction. Even so, it is up to each individual engineer and scientist to learn the facts about global warming, and climate change and environmental degradation, and the unfortunate political realities governing the economics of their profession, as a matter of professional ethics and personal integrity. This is the necessary first step for them to have any possibility of producing work for the public good.

Navarro is correct to call geo-engineering to attenuate global warming a scam. It’s like trying to design a more effective helmet that would allow you to continue playing Russian Roulette. The most energy efficient, cost effective, socially beneficial and rapid solution to the fundamental problem is to simply stop the damaging behavior, which in the case of climate change is greenhouse gas emitting capitalism. But, that would be economically leveling and fatal to militarism, so unacceptable to the courtiers of capitalism, in all their national factions.

Like all engineers, I like machines and gizmos and gadgets, and I especially like flows of energy. But the best use of such engineered mechanisms are as adjuncts in harmony with the workings of nature for the beneficial maintenance of a sustainable society. There are so may delectable challenges to be enjoyed in the fashioning of a non-fossil fueled civilization, a Green New Deal, that operates within the natural tolerances for the continuation of a stable and benign (interglacial) global climate, that all the 21st century engineers could be fulfillingly employed for their lifetimes to help fashion and maintain that kind of world society. The immediate challenges are twofold: transform energy systems and industrial and food production operations to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and toxic chemical pollution, and stop environmental damage and engage massively in environmental restoration of lands and the oceans. Planting trees and cleaning up plastic pollution are just two examples of specific tasks that easily come to mind.

So I circle back to the same conclusion as always: our problems are not technological but political.

As long as our politics are bad — our economics held captive by fossil fueled capitalism and militarism, to the general detriment of the public — our technologists will be directed by the self-interests of the Big Money and the War Industries, and not by the public good of engineering and managing a decent society in harmony with Nature.

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Bernie’s Heart. And Ours.

Along with being where all blood goes, the heart is an enduring metaphor. As Bernie Sanders recovers from a heart attack, now might be a good time to consider some literal and symbolic meanings.

Bernie immediately used his heart trouble to advance a central mission. From the hospital, he tweeted: “I’m fortunate to have good health care and great doctors and nurses helping me to recover. None of us know when a medical emergency might affect us. And no one should fear going bankrupt if it occurs. Medicare for All!”

That’s the kind of being “on message” we so badly need. It’s fully consistent with Bernie’s campaign and his public life. (“Not me. Us.”) He has never been a glad-hander or much of a showman. He’s always been much more interested in ending people’s pain than proclaiming that he feels it.

About 10 years ago, I was lucky enough to dialogue with Bernie during an “in conversation with” event in San Francisco, where several hundred people filled the room. Before we went on stage, there was a gathering in a makeshift green room that raised a small amount of money for his senatorial campaign coffers. “I’ve never been good at raising money,” he told me.

I thought about that comment when the news broke a few days ago that the Bernie 2020 campaign raised a whopping $25.3 million during the last quarter, with donations averaging just $18. Bernie never went after money. It went after him; from the grassroots.

From the middle of this decade onward, as the popularity of Bernie and his political agenda has grown, so has the hostility from corporate media. The actual Bernie campaign is in sharp contrast with cable TV coverage as well as press narratives.

The campaign looks set to fully resume soon. When Bernie left the hospital on Friday, NBC News quoted the chief of cardiology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, Ehtisham Mahmud, who said that the three-day length of hospitalization indicates the senator “probably had a small heart attack” — and “they require really a very short recovery time.”

So, from all indications, Bernie will soon be back on the campaign trail — once again hammering on grim realities that are evaded or excused by the political and media establishment, like the fact that just three individuals (Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) have as much wealth as the bottom half of the entire U.S. population.

Last month, in an interview about his proposal to greatly increase taxes on the extremely rich, Bernie said: “What we are trying to do is demand and implement a policy which significantly reduces income and wealth inequality in America by telling the wealthiest families in this country they cannot have so much wealth.” Such concentrations of wealth — and the political power that goes with it — are antithetical to genuine democracy.

For his entire adult life, Bernie Sanders has been part of social movements intent on challenging such profit-mad industries as corporate health care, financial services, mass incarceration and the military-industrial complex that cause so much opulence for the few and so much suffering for the many. The enormous inequalities of wealth and power are systemic and ruthless — with devastating effects on vast numbers of people.

That’s where the heart as metaphor is apt. Bernie has a huge and eternally healthy heart, filled with the lifeblood of empathy and dedication. In essence, that’s what the Bernie 2020 campaign is all about. As he has been the first to say, it’s not about him, it’s about us. How much compassion and commitment can we find in our hearts?

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A Tale of Two Policies: Trump’s Hypocrisy and State Violence in Venezuela and Brazil

A recent report on Venezuela by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a grim portrayal of a country in a severe crisis. Yet, given the extensive media coverage given to this report, it is important to contextualize what is going on in Venezuela in light of the situation in other countries in the region.

Comparing the rates of violent abuses of state security agents in Venezuela with those of state actors like Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, or Mexico, it becomes clear that Venezuela is far from being an outlier, but rather part of a disturbing pattern of abusive, tough-on-crime, “mano dura” (“iron fist”) security policies in Latin America. What is an outlier, however, is the disproportionate media attention directed at Venezuela’s human rights situation, in comparison to other Latin American nations.

Another outlier is the US approach to Venezuela, which is clearly driven by the political aims of President Donald Trump — not by any particular concern for human rights. To get a sense of Trump’s double standard when it comes to human rights, one need look no further than how his administration treats Venezuela’s neighbor, Brazil.

Trump and Venezuela

In January 2019, Juan Guaído, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself the president of Venezuela. This declaration did not come out of nowhere, but, as was later reported, was coordinated with politicians and senior government officials in the United States. Guaído was recognized as the president of Venezuela, in short order, by President Trump — exercising his exclusive presidential power to recognize foreign governments. Around 50 countries, concentrated in Europe and the Americas, have followed the US’s lead in recognizing Guaído.

It’s worth noting that recognizing Guaído is a blatant violation of customary international law, which prohibits the recognition of non-de facto governments with the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs of another state. Article 3 of the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) — of which the United States is a founding member — specifically prohibits OAS member states from “intervening in the affairs of another State.”

Trump has also violated international law by insisting that “all options are on the table” for deposing Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro — thinly-veiled code for threatening military intervention. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter prohibits member states from employing “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

Trump has used the recognition of Guaidó, and Maduro’s subsequent refusal to step down, as justification for further tightening sanctions against Venezuela’s elected government. This escalation will be disastrous, as US economic sanctions imposed since August 2017 have, according to a recent CEPR report, already led to the deaths of an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans through the end of 2018 by making it much harder for Venezuela to acquire the foreign exchange needed to import food and medicine.

The use of unilateral sanctions for the purpose of influencing another state’s behavior is, in itself, a breach of international law. Unilateral sanctions that generate a humanitarian crisis in the target state specifically violate international humanitarian law. Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (to which the US is a signatory) require states to respect the rights of all to “adequate food” and to “physical and mental health.”

Trump and Brazil

The legality of recognizing Guaído rests on the argument (whether valid or not) that the mandate Maduro won in the 2018 election was illegitimate. However, if indeed the Trump administration believes that the Venezuelan elections were flawed, the administration appears to be applying a very different standard in the case of Brazil.

In the case of Venezuela, the US administration deplored the fact that various opposition politicians were excluded from running. However, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro won because of the incarceration of former president and leading presidential candidate Lula da Silva, in judicial proceedings which were severely marred by politically-motivated collusion between a judge, Sergío Moro — later appointed Justice Minister by Bolsonaro — and prosecutors involved in the case (a saga laid out in detail in social media messages leaked to The Intercept).

Yet, there has been no US-led effort to reject the legitimacy of Bolsonaro or recognize Lula as the president of Brazil. In fact, Trump’s approach to Venezuela — where he has used maximum pressure in an attempt to oust Maduro, violating international law every step of the way — could not be more different from his approach to Brazil.

Trump has unequivocally embraced Bolsonaro as he engages in an all-out assault on human rights in Brazil. In May 2019, Amnesty International identified eight separate areas of concerning policy changes under Bolsonaro, including undermining the ability of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to oversee abuses and infringing the rights of victims of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. In March 2019, Human Rights Watch decried Bolsonaro’s planned state celebration of the 1964 coup d’etats.

This assault has fallen most disastrously upon the most vulnerable sectors of the population. Bolsonaro’s attacks on women, the LGBTQ community, indigenous communities, and Afro-Brazilians have already been decried in three separate letters from members of Congress to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Some defenders of the human rights of the marginalized have been driven into exile by constant death threats.

But opposition to human rights protections is part of Bolsonaro’s brand. On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro opined that “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” He has said that a criminal should not be thought of as a “normal human being” and that police who kill “criminals” should not be prosecuted, but rather given awards. He has worked to liberalize gun laws “to guarantee citizens their legitimate right to defense,”making it easier for civilians to pursue vigilante justice.

Predictably, the burden of increased state-sanctioned violence has fallen upon the racially marginalized. Police operations in Rio de Janeiro state — military-style invasions increasingly using helicopters — have disproportionately targeted Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods. Violent land grabs of indigenous territories are on the rise. In March and April of 2019, there were three massacres of indigenous people in the Amazon in 12 days.

In keeping with Trump’s pattern of praising leaders accused of human rights abuses, it perhaps comes as no surprise that upon Bolsonaro’s inauguration, he congratulated the new Brazilian president, proclaiming, “The U.S.A. is with you.” Bolsonaro did, after all, have ties to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and he ran a campaign, like Trump’s, that was fueled by disinformation (“fake news”).

It was still a shock to some, however, when Trump declared Brazil a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA), a designation currently shared by only 16 other countries (plus Taiwan). With MNNA status, Bolsonaro will be granted greater access to advanced military technologies and military equipment. He will accrue the benefits of increased collaboration with the most powerful armed forces in the world as US military spending nears its post–World War II-era high reached during the Iraq War.

Comparing State Violence in Venezuela and Brazil

It is in light of Trump’s highly dissonant policies toward Brazil and Venezuela that one should read the recent report on abuses in Venezuela from the OHCHR.

The major finding of the OHCHR report, amplified by the media, was that 5,287 people had been killed in security operations in Venezuela in 2018. This 5,287 figure does not come from opposition activists or Florida Republicans. It is based on the Venezuelan government’s own accounting (see: paragraph 50 of the report).

Upon the release of the OHCHR report, The New York Times summarized it as “detailing wide-ranging government abuses targeting political opponents.” José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch (which has long had a revolving door with the US State Department), compared Maduro to notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Steve Levitsky, Harvard Professor and author of 2018’s How Democracies Die (which repeatedly refers to Hugo Chávez as an authoritarian, without presenting strong evidence to back this claim), went so far as to say that Maduro was “worse than Pinochet.”

Yet, as few in the media have acknowledged, the OHCHR does not allege that many of these security-related killings were political in nature. In fact, as Gabriel Hetland has pointed out in The Nation, the OHCHR only attributes political motivations to six killings by the Fuerza de Acción Especial (FAES) — the branch of the Bolivarian National Police which features most prominently in the report (see: paragraph 52).

The nongovernmental organization Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia (Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, or OVV by its initials in Spanish) puts the number of killings by security forces at a higher figure: 7,523. Of course, the exact number of killings in Venezuela may well lie somewhere between the estimate of the government of Venezuela and the approximately 50 percent higher figure estimated by OVV.

Using this high-end figure of 7,523 killings, this means that, for 2018, there were over 20 killings by security forces per day in Venezuela. OVV also reports killings for January through May 19th, 2019, at 2,124 — or about 15 per day. This would mean state violence is down by almost 26 percent since last year. This decrease is despite the fact that Venezuela ranked as the “most worsened” country in the world on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index for 2019 — and despite the attempted coup by Guaído and his supporters on April 30th.

By contrast, state violence has been increasing in the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro. In 2018, police killings of civilians in the State numbered at 1,534 — the highest annual figure since 2007. In 2019, police killings numbered at 731 for January through May — the highest figure, over that time period, since 2003. These figures break down to about 4.2 police killings per day in 2018 and 4.8 per day in 2019, an increase of 15 percent — and this is only one state in Brazil.

In the spirit of Bolsonaro’s rhetorical demand for “dead criminals,” Wilson Witzel — a hardline tough-on-crime ally of Bolsonaro who has been governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro since January — has responded to these disturbing figures by declaring the increase in police killings “normal.”

“Nobody wants to kill bandits,” Witzel said. “We want to arrest them. But they need to know we are going to act with rigour. When we arrive, they either surrender, or die.” “Bandit” is, in Portugese, “bandido”— the same word Bolsonaro uses which English-language media translates as “criminal.”

It is important to consider factors which make a direct comparison of the two rates of state killings very difficult. Crucially, Venezuela was almost 76 percent more populous than the State of Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the last year for which reliable statistics are available for both (29.4 million vs. 16.7 millionresidents).

Moreover, the 2018 homicide rate in Venezuela was nearly 109 percent higher than that of Rio de Janeiro state — 81.4/100,000 vs. 39/100,000. As Venezuela is far more dangerous, it is not unreasonable to expect that police there would be under greater threat and thus respond with greater force.

Andres Antillano, Chair of Criminology at the Central University of Venezuela, has explained that Maduro’s presidency has seen a return to the same ineffective, hardline criminal justice policies which were rejected during the presidency of Hugo Chávez. He argues that increasing police killings paradoxically increase violent crime, thus encouraging even more violence from the police — which he describes as a “circle of violence.”

Bruno Paes Manso of the University of São Paulo has pointed to a similar process in the State of Rio de Janeiro, where the government increasingly sees state violence as the only way to contain crime — and yet increased brutality by the state only increases criminal violence. “If you treat [the people who live in the favelas] like enemies,” he argues, “they will organize against the state, they will see the state as their enemy.”

Upon closer examination, therefore, the patterns of violence perpetrated by state agents in Brazil and Venezuela are not so different. US policy toward these two countries, however, could not be more different.

Taking State Violence Seriously

The direct responsibility of Bolsonaro and Maduro for killings by security forces which occur during their tenures is difficult to accurately assign. In both countries, as in the United States, police are employed at all levels of government — federal, state, and municipal. However, as it is unfair to blame all state killings of civilians on the head of government, it is likewise unreasonable to absolve them completely.

In 2018, police killed 992 Americans — a rate of more than 2.7 people per day. In 2016, the last year of President Barack Obama’s second term, police killed 962 civilians — 2.6 per day. In light of the firing of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, five years too late following his murder of Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold in New York City, advocates for human rights must reiterate that police killings of civilians should always be a cause of concern and condemnation — whether in Brazil, Venezuela, or the United States.

A president motivated by concern for human rights would be right to criticize any government with a high rate of security-related killings. However, Trump clearly does not care about human rights. He has embraced Bolsonaro because they share a right-wing, nationalist ideology, and he has attacked Venezuela as a gambit for votes in Florida.

If Trump cared about Venezuelan human rights, he would not be deporting hundreds of Venezuelan migrants, and he would not be causing the deaths of thousands of Venezuelans by imposing crippling sanctions. If Trump cared about the rights of people around the world who are abused by their governments, he would not be giving Bolsonaro preferential access to advanced weaponry.

All those who wish to further the cause of human rights in Latin America will have to reckon with the United Nations report on human rights abuses in Venezuela — but they should do so with an attention to the current context, which includes an American president hellbent on weaponizing the language of human rights for his own political advantage.

Colin Brineman writes for CEPR’s America’s Blog, where this article first appeared.

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The Death Penalty is Barbaric and Ineffective

October 10 is World Day Against the Death Penalty. That the U.S. continues to use this broken and antiquated system of (in)justice is reprehensive in so many ways, but among the most important is the issue of sentencing people to death row wrongfully and executing people who did not commit the offenses that resulted in those sentences. As a Floridian, I am highlighting here the case of James Daily. Not because Florida is the only state in which the system is frequently wrong, but in the hopes that his very legitimate claims of innocence may be heard by others who can help save a life.

James Dailey is a Vietnam War veteran who served three tours there and one in Korea. If the state goes forward with his execution, currently scheduled for November 7, he would be Florida’s 100th executed person since executions restarted in the 1970s. Dailey has spent more than 30 years on death row for a murder he did not commit, and despite there being no eyewitnesses or physical evidence tying him to the murder. In fact, the physical evidence, a hair found in the victim’s hand, already excludes Mr. Dailey from having committed the offense. The true killer, co-defendant Jack Pearcy, has signed an affidavit swearing that he actually committed the murder. Pearcy failed a polygraph pre-trial and told inmates and several correctional institutional officers that he did it. He has a history of violence, particularly against women. Further, police reports from the 1985 crime show that Mr. Pearcy left his home with the victim shortly before the murder and James Dailey was not with them, yet this information was withheld from jurors.

As is too often the case, the prosecutors used an unreliable and uncorroborated snitch/informant to build the case against Dailey. After the state initially failed to secure a death sentence against Pearcy, law enforcement went to the jail, pulled every man from Dailey’s pod, showed them coverage of the case and offered them leniency in their cases if they could “help.” Only then did someone say Dailey did it. Paul Skalnik was a known child sexual offender but charges in his pending case were dropped due to his testimony against Dailey. He was released and went on to commit another sexual offense against a child in Texas, where he is currently incarcerated. The prosecutor in the case has since said she would never use Skalnik again because she had no evidence that his testimony was truthful.

This case highlights so much of what goes wrong in capital cases. Use of problematic witnesses, police and prosecutorial misconduct and jailhouse snitches are frequently factors in exonerations. At this point, Florida leads the nation in getting it wrong—for every three executions, one person is exonerated.

It is way past time that Florida, and the remaining death penalty retentionist states, discontinue this barbaric and ineffective practice.

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It’s Not Just Greta: Why are the Developing World’s Inspiring Activists Being Ignored?

Ridhima Pandey was just nine years old in 2017 when she filed a lawsuit against the Indian government for failing to take action against climate change. Pandey’s fierce, astounding passion for the environment is not accidental. Her mother is a forestry guard and her father an environmental activist; and the whole family was displaced by the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, which claimed hundreds of lives.

In Kenya Kaluki Paul Mutuku has been actively involved in conservation since college, where he was a member of an environmental awareness club, and has been a member of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change since 2015. Raised in rural Kenya by a single mother, Mutuku’s vigorous activism, like Pandey’s, was inspired by the direct challenges his family (and wider community) faced from the effects of climate change: “Growing up, I witnessed mothers cover kilometres to fetch water,”

For years, young people across the world have been campaigning to draw attention to the crisis our planet faces, and to tackle it. Yet it seems the media is only interested in one young climate activist.

Without doubt, the remarkable Greta Thunberg is a superstar. In just one year, she has gone from being an unknown teenager, living in the comfort of a middle-class home in Sweden, to being one of the most recognised faces on the planet. She is fearless, earnest, passionate about the planet and determined.

But so are her peers. Born in a wealthy country, to parents who can afford to accommodate their daughter’s convictions, and in a culture where children are encouraged to speak up, Thunberg has intersecting privileges. She is aware of this and regularly mentions her fellow youth activists in her speeches, to remind journalists that there are others working alongside her.

People such as the teenager Aditya Mukarji, who in March 2018 began a war against plastic straws. Within just five months, he had already helped replace more than 500,000 plastic straws at restaurants and hotels in New Delhi. “People listen more to children bringing up environmental concerns,” he says.

Last year Nina Gualinga, an indigenous activist from the Ecuadorian Amazon since the age of eight, won the WWF’s top youth conservation award. At 15, Autumn Peltier from the Anishinaabe people of Canada, is a veteran clean water and climate advocate. And Leah Namugerwa is a 15-year-old Ugandan activist.

There are many more whose names we rarely, if ever, hear. Yet, frustratingly, these other activists are often referred to in the media as the “Greta Thunberg” of their country, or are said to be following in her footsteps, even in cases where they began their public activism long before she started hers – their own identities and work almost completely erased by a western media that rarely recognises progress outside its own part of the world.

This tendency of the media to present Thunberg as the one who calls, and the others existing only to heed her call, is problematic, especially for those black and brown activists whose media invisibility leads to invisibility to organisations whose help they could greatly benefit from. This “white saviour” narrative invalidates the impact of locals working in their communities, and perpetuates the stereotype of “the native with no agency” who cannot help themselves. As an African I find these portrayals deeply offensive. It is insulting to present the members of the communities most threatened by climate change as passive onlookers who are only now being spurred on by the “Thunberg effect”.

Why did it take a Thunberg for the UN to organise its first youth climate summit? Those most affected should not be exiled to the fringes of the conversation. These other activists are being told their works, their contributions, don’t matter. The privileging of one campaigner’s narrative over others creates a world where Namugerwa would mention a Swedish teenager she only heard about a year ago as inspiration, but not Wangari Maathai, the environmentalist from neighbouring Kenya who won the Nobel peace prize in 2004. One could argue that it is natural for Namugerwa to find inspiration in a young girl close to her in age, but it is also likely that Maathai’s Green Belt Movement influenced her and her friends’ decision to plant trees on their birthdays to help the environment.

Planting trees. Collecting litter. Striking for the environment. I am in awe of all the young people calling attention to a very real and urgent problem. I applaud all of them for doing what they can, in big and small ways, to combat climate change. I must also acknowledge the young children in Kenya and Nigeria and other parts of the developing world who make toys out of recycled plastic and metal, and who would probably not know to call themselves climate advocates.

I applaud Bangladesh for being the first country to ban plastic bags in 2002, and Rwanda for banning non-biodegradable plastic in 2008 (and Kigali for being named by the UN as Africa’s cleanest city). One day at a time, our collective efforts may yet save the planet.

And while we continue to work towards that goal, the moral thing for western media to do is to also highlight the contributions of the black and brown saviours trying to make that happen so that when future generations talk of it, this will not be the story of a single narrative.

Chika Unigwe is a Nigerian writer. Her latest book is Better Never Than Late.

This column originally appeared in the Guardian.

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Instead of Explaining Greta Thunberg, Debate Her Claims

What is Greta Thunberg’s superpower?

She obviously has one, if not more. Your average sixteen-year-old doesn’t start successful global activist movements,  address UN Climate Action Summits, and have those addresses go viral as death metal videos.

Critics slam Thunberg as everything from “mentally ill” (a claim which got one Fox News guest blacklisted),  to naive pawn in a well-funded propaganda operation, to just plain annoying teenager.

I think those critics miss the point. If they disagree on the facts, they should dispute those facts rather than focus on Thunberg at all. But since the focus IS on her, let’s take a closer look.

Thunberg herself describes her autism-related diagnoses as among the aforementioned superpowers. “I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, OCD and selective mutism,” she said in a Tedx Talk. “That basically means I only speak when I think it’s necessary. Now is one of those moments.”

Thunberg as pawn isn’t as dismissive as it sounds, but it doesn’t ring very true either. Yes, she and her efforts enjoy support from well-funded organizations and individuals, but there’s no reason to believe they randomly plucked her from the global mass of teenagers and set her in motion.  She attracted their notice by taking action. They didn’t make a winner, they saw a winner and decided to bet big on that winner.

As for her age, that’s a double-edged sword. Her supporters can position her as wise beyond her years, her opponents as too young to yet possess wisdom at all.

Personally, I think Thunberg’s superpower is that she’s a great actor.

No, that’s not intended as an insult. And no, I’m not just pulling the idea out of thin air.

She comes from a theatrical family. Her mother’s an opera singer. Her father’s an actor. Her grandfather’s an actor and director. She’s spent her entire life surrounded by the idea of performance as primary.

Formally trained or not, naturally gifted or not, she’s clearly mastered the art of holding an audience’s attention while she tells us what she thinks we need to hear.

So: IS what she’s telling us what we need to hear? Does she have her facts straight? Is her understanding of the science accurate? Are the models she trusts for climate predictions sound?

With or without Greta Thunberg, those are the questions we need answers to.

Someone hand the lady her Oscar and let’s get back to work.

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7.5 Million Humans Say No to Climate Crisis and Yes to Life

As one of the 7.5 million who recently put their bodies where their mouth are to visibly say “NO” to an out-of-control global climate crisis, this writer continues to reflect upon what lies behind the futility of so many climate crises, anti-war, pro-human protests of the past, and the even more aggressive protests that will be needed in the future to tackle the forces that continue to crush the planet.

In 2019, however, there still are as many if not more politicians in the world hopelessly out-of-touch about the climate crisis and the expressed will of millions of their young and old constituents today, as there were back in 2003 when this writer, and millions more like him, also protested, to no avail, the then threatened war in Iraq.

Nations like Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and the United States, as well as many others, still ruthlessly rule, to varying degrees, with an iron fist like rulers and countries of other centuries past. They still rigidly adhere to the same philosophy and way of life driven by global consumer capitalism and fairytale beliefs in a world predicated upon perpetual economic growth.

In the long run, will the minions who continue to march and protest at whatever G8, G20, G40 meeting to “Save The World” from itself also have so little avail upon today’s politicians as those humans of other times and places who protested so vociferiously with all the passion, strength and might they could muster, against yet some other senseless war or, wow, guess what, against the same things, like oil pipelines, human greed and savage male aggression? It’s like that old saying, “What goes around forever comes around ‘til things finally change!”

Reflecting upon the similarities of 2003 & 2019 one image in particular, like a flashback to some long ago distant time, reminds this one of what motivated him back then to become both an activist and lifelong teacher of youth that, to this day, still posesses the same intensity and poignancy that ever since has been his raison d’etre.

The flashback image is a poster that depicts a wandering, itinerant, philosopher-king: with a weather-beaten kindly beaming, wrinkled face; his tossled white hair supporting a tarnished gold crown; his once luxurious raiments now threadbare, holely and patched like his also, once regal, now time-worn bejeweled slippers. Slung over his shoulder, he carries his bedding and all his worldly possessions in a bundle, tied to the end of a stick, like some old Aussie swagman. Standing innocently before the old king on the rough, untrodden road that lies before him, there stands one tiny girl, around age two, with curly blond hair, wearing a delicate white lace dress, wonderously looking up at him with an angelic face, full of so much hope and expectancy. The king is stooped over, their faces almost touching, as he stares intently at her so his failing eyes and ears can see and hear her with greater clarity. The caption of the image reads “The Philosopher-King is Beholden to Ask the Child Which Way Next to Go!”

So when one compares which road the world has taken since 2003, or seemingly since forever, and what choice of roads still remain in 2019, one wonders if there exists, in the real world, anything like what that philosopher-king, in the end, will intuitively know which road to take from the youth standing before him? Will it be “the high road, or the low road”, as in the lyrics of that old Scottish song The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomand? Will the road chosen again be the high road of the rich and mighty or the low road of the common peoplethat can be traced all the way back to the fairies  and little people of ancient legend? Only time will tell!

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Overreach, the Achilles Heel of Autocrats

It Has Happened Here and Everywhere

It seems like just yesterday that we were celebrating the democratic wave sweeping Europe in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It seems like yesterday that we hailed the Arab Spring and its potential for democratization across the Middle East. It seems like yesterday that we scoffed at the absolute authority of tin pot dictators who presided over impoverished populations in the Third World. We in the US thought all those events were far away; it couldn’t happen in established democracies like ours.

Until it did, with a president who has systematically dismantled regulations that protect and promote human rights, pigeonholed scientists and other experts who defy his beliefs, trampled the Constitution, and practiced in-your-face corruption. Evidently believing he can act with impunity, Donald Trump has invited interference from three countries to assist his election and reelection. His arrogance, lawlessness, and sense of invulnerability seem to have no bounds.

Through all this, we Americans have been overconfident and all too accommodating, as though Trump’s war on democracy would inevitably be halted. In fact, “it” has happened here, and not just here: in Brazil, Britain, Hungary, Egypt, and Turkey. Democracies of one sort or another are in peril, autocrats are in power, and established authoritarian regimes (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia) look to some like the wave of the future. We’re living the Orwellian nightmare: institutions that check executive authority are being systematically undermined, national leaders are claiming popular support for rule by decree, social well-being is an increasingly irrelevant objective, and international norms such as consensus, community, conservation, and human rights are being haughtily dismissed. Unaccountable government is increasingly the norm.

This nightmare, especially coming amidst a climate crisis, is a recipe for global disruption and war, not to mention a disgracefully widening gap between the super-rich and everyone else. In times of great uncertainty, fascism with a human face has new opportunities to take root. People become desperate about the future, suspicious of “the other” and eager for strongman rule. Democracy drops in importance; “stability and order” rise to the top. “Ordinary,” a character in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale says, is “what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”


What is the key to toppling autocrats? Relentless criticism does not seem to move the needle, but their blind ambition and ineptitude may. Look at the damaging mistakes authoritarian leaders have made lately: Donald Trump’s Ukraine and China solicitations, Xi Jinping’s Hong Kong and Xinjiang repression, Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit, Jair Bolsonaro’s Amazonia fires, and Vladimir Putin’s cronyism. Their major errors of judgment and mishandling of events have produced dramatic displays of resistance in Hong Kong, London, even Moscow, as well as stoked worldwide criticism in the other cases. To be sure, crackdowns on political opponents by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban have succeeded so far, Chinese financial power has silenced many foreign critics, and Trump has been able to cow his party’s leaders and fool his supporters. But overreach often is what eventually does dictators in.

The 2020 election in the US may be a last chance to restore democracy and reestablish the nation as a beacon of hope. If we miss our chance, America will descend deeper into authoritarianism and become unrecognizable to those of us who remember what it meant to live in civil society. Impeachment of Trump will happen, is necessary, and demonstrates to people living under authoritarianism that accountability and transparency are fundamental to a democracy. But only a solid triumph at the ballot box will do the job of removing a serial abuser of power.

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Iraq is in Revolt

Photograph Source: Technical Sergeant Adrian Cadiz – Public Domain

Iraq is poised at a turning point in its modern history as its people wait to see if the government curfew and close down of the internet will end the ongoing demonstrations.

I am staying in the Baghdad Hotel, off Sadoon Street in central Baghdad, not far from Tahrir Square, the focus of most protest movements in Iraq. On Tuesday I was expecting to visit Iraqi army bases north of Baghdad to find out if Isis was still a threat and what the chances were of it making a comeback.

I never went: on Tuesday afternoon at about 4pm I began to hear the “put put” of rifle fire in the distance which at first I disregarded, thinking there might be a wedding or some other celebration. But the sound got louder and soon there was the sharp crack of weapons being fired close by. In the lobby of my hotel, a man stopped me and said, “There are 10 dead already and the fighting is going to get worse.”

It turned out that the government had managed to turn a small demonstration of 3,000 people in Tahrir Square, who had been protesting for three months against official corruption, a lack of jobs and poor services, into a major incident. The protesters had tried to cross the Jumhuriya Bridge which leads in the direction of the green zone, the site of the parliament, the prime minister’s office and other official buildings. The riot police, who have a bad reputation in Iraq, opened fire with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and, eventually, live rounds. Soon a video was flashing around social media of the protesters, mostly under 20, being attacked by the police and hosed with hot water.

It was this incident which turned a small scale protest into mass demonstrations which may bring down the government of prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The riot police inadvertently detonated the explosive resentment felt by almost all Iraqis towards the kleptocratic state which has stolen as much as $450bn since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

All Iraqis know that the country possesses vast oil wealth, bringing in $6.5bn a month, but they live with widescale unemployment, lack of electricity, pervasive corruption and a poor quality health and education system. They know that vast fortunes have been made by government officials siphoning off money for projects that are never completed and, frequently, are never even begun. For many years, even the state’s bomb detecting equipment, which was entirely ineffective in detecting bombs, was being bought for tens of thousands of dollars apiece though it cost only a few dollars to make.

It is this sense of grievance which is now beginning to explode: unless the government can rein it in over the next few days it is unlikely to last very long. One of the strengths of the protest movement is that it has no leaders but is almost entirely spontaneous, with a wide variety of slogans, but this means the government has nobody to talk to, not that it is trying very hard to negotiate its way out of trouble. Many Iraqis say that it is a mistake to get rid of the government without knowing what will replace it but others argue that things could not be much worse for them and are prepared to take a leap in the dark.

Intense rage against government mass theft of Iraq’s resources has been there since 2003, but the Shia majority have usually been persuaded by their political leaders that they must stick together to stop al-Qaeda or Isis making a comeback. Up to the recapture of Mosul, the de facto Isis capital in 2017 after a nine-month siege, this argument often worked. But since then Isis has controlled no territory in Iraq and there have been no big bombings in Baghdad for three years. People are no longer so frightened by the fear of their families being murdered that they are prepared to ignore the mass corruption and lack of basic services.

The explosion over social grievances would have happened at some point and it was government overreaction which insured that this happened last Tuesday. Quite why it behaved liked this is something of a mystery: speculation in Baghdad is that the prime minister is advised by military hawks with little idea of the mechanics of Iraqi politics.

But it is noticeable that the government has failed to make any concessions since it’s made its first mistakes. “The prime minister should have done something like announcing that he would arrest the hundred most corrupt members of his government,” said one friend. Instead ministers have been saying that they will inquire into the reasons for the protests, but these are glaringly obvious and known to the whole country: corruption, joblessness and lack of services.

What will happen next? The government cannot maintain a total lockdown on Baghdad, a city of seven million people, for very long. Already people are beginning to move on the streets around my hotel and many of them heading for Tahrir Square. Closing down the internet may have disrupted communications between protesters, making it more difficult for them to stage demonstrations in the centre of the city.

But it has only displaced the protests to districts all over Baghdad, including the Shia stronghold of Sadr City which is reputed to have a population of 3 million. Reports yesterday spoke of crowds there setting fire to municipal offices and the headquarters of political parties associated with the government. The uprising has also spread across all of southern Iraq, though not yet to the Sunni provinces. The government may find it difficult to suppress the Shia, their own base support, using armed forces that are themselves mostly Shia.

The government’s legitimacy was low to begin with and is sinking by the day. Ali Sistani, the revered religious leader of the Shia, may come out against the government actions. Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist nationalist leader whose movement came first in the parliamentary elections in 2018, has said he supports the protests, though he does not want his supporters to play a leading role in them on the grounds that this would “politicise” the protest movement and discredit it in the eyes of some Iraqis. Even government spokespeople are refusing to talk to Iraqi journalists, probably because they do not want to be seen approving the government’s tactics. In other words, unless the prime minister can bring the crisis under control in the next couple of days his own administration may begin to implode.

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Trump Administration to Small Farmers: Stop Whining, Your Demise is Inevitable

Abandoned farm house, Wasco, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

You really have to hand it to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, he can callously joke about farmers being “whiners” and consistently show how out of touch with farmers he really is, but as ag secretary, he still gets “the guest of honor” billing at a World Dairy Expo Town Hall. 

When asked what he planned to do to prevent another five years of low farm prices, he noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) thinks milk prices will be better in 2020 than they were in 2019 — so I guess everything is OK now?

He also pointed out that trade is the No. 1 issue he hears about and stated: “We are a country so blessed that we have to depend on foreign markets because we are so productive” — you remember, those markets we lost due Trump’s trade wars, lost with nary a whimper from Perdue.

Perdue completely glosses over the impact low farm prices have had on rural America. He doesn’t mention the rising farm suicide rates, the bankruptcies or the 551 Wisconsin farms that have already gone out of business in 2019.

Get big or get out, that’s just the way it is. America is about big business, and if small farmers, small business owners and rural America get thrown under the bus in the process, well, they should just move on and stop whining.  

Jerry Volenec, a fifth generation Wisconsin dairy farmer put it this way: “What I heard today from the Secretary of Agriculture is there’s no place for me.” He’s right. Under Perdue there is no place for small farmers and under this administration there is no place for a thriving, small-town rural America. 

By telling all those small farmers at the town hall that there was no guarantee that small farms would survive, and saying, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue was parroting Nixon’s ag secretary Earl Butz, who coined the phrase  “get big or get out.” By doubling down on that mantra, which led to the farm crisis we are in today, Perdue was effectively slapping farmers in the face and letting them know that any idea of a fair price was not part of his brand of failed farm policy.

Apparently, if you are willing to “get big” and milk thousands of cows, that efficiency of scale might help you keep your head above water. And of course there are always USDA subsidy programs — the bigger you are, the bigger your subsidy payment. Would Perdue’s USDA ever consider developing a fair pricing system for dairy? One that guaranteed fair farm prices by matching production with market demand instead of making farmers dependent on export markets and vulnerable to a president’s egotistical trade wars? Fat chance. This administration, despite its praise for small business, has no time for fair anything. When asked if he would support a federal supply management system (a system that has kept small farmers profitable in Canada for over 50 years), Perdue responded, “If you need an answer right now, the answer is no.” 

By casually dismissing small farms, Perdue is also dismissing rural America in general. Rural communities have always depended on small farms, not just because small farms patronize businesses in their communities, but because farm families are part of the community: The churches they attend, the public schools their kids go to and all the small businesses that made small towns good and vibrant places to live. 

Anyone who grew up in rural America has seen the striking parallel economic decline of small farms and rural communities from the days of Earl Butz to the present, with little sympathy from Butz or his alter ego, Sonny Perdue. 

Trump calls farmers “great patriots” and sees no reason they should not happily suffer the consequences of his trade wars, attacks on health insurance, social security, civility and pretty much everything that has, in the past, made America a welcoming place. 

Rural areas and “fly over country” in general are said to be “his base,” ridiculed for electing him and now suffering from his policies that favor the moneyed elite, who have always been the only people he really cares about. Perdue is just another part of a loathsome administration.

If you’ve ever read Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas you probably have some insight into the thought process of people who vote against their own best interests. Perhaps it’s time for the sequel: What’s the Matter with America? It wasn’t just rural America that elected Trump, it was America. Unless one happens to belong to that class of moneyed elites, sorry, but you voted against your own best interests if you voted for Trump. You can’t be for Trump and against his policies. It’s a package deal.

As rural Americans, we unfortunately get Sonny Perdue as part of that package.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Wisconsin Examiner.

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Homeless Oakland Heart: “Not a Homeless Person, Just a Person Without a Home.”

Voices from the streets

I have been to Kibera, arguably the world’s largest slum, a place where human shit runs in the streets.

But I’ve never seen poverty more severe than here.

I’d come home. To my birthplace: Oakland.

Homeless encampments cling beneath freeway overpasses like albatross, enlarging daily, fed in reverse by the excesses of tech-enabled hypercapitalism—our home-grown, capitalistic terrorism.

Crack dealers stand sentry over most encampments with chained pit bulls at the ready. The tent clusters are contoured with baby-carriage carnage and a super mashup of stolen shopping carts.

Most everywhere people now tend towards rapping rather than crooning if asked to communicate musically—their words born from slang and boasts. An untold aspect of poverty is that it suffocates the basic drive to express oneself—let alone the instruments to do so or the willingness of listeners to be attentive. Great truths have been muttered in response to voices inside the stricken’s head—shouted into the wind, ignored.

Sadly, the transient community’s talent pool is almost limitless. And growing by the day.

One woman, Bea, sleeps on a couch sunken under the freeway. She emerged from her sole blanket cover and within seconds launched into a free-association song about the loss of hope that followed her mother’s passing. It was a gut-wrenching but seemingly effortless declaration of grief, waged through toothless gums. She went straight from sleep to baring her soul, with zero pretense.

The self-identified musicians were not as forthcoming.

One refused to record, stating he was going on tour to Paris. We found him days later, crashed out on a park bench instead.

Another elderly man claimed that his debut album was forthcoming and that a cover had been shot by a “real” photographer. Wallowing in this reverie, he then escalated abruptly, leaping to his feet, spitting through his beard, and attempting to square off with me, an eight-inch sheathed blade banging against his hip like a seismograph of his instability. He’d not counted on this scenario resembling too closely ones I’d played out far too many times on locked psychiatric wards. Recognizing that his posturing had not produced the desired effect, he deflated, and we parted friends.

Working in that very county’s psychiatric emergency room for over a decade, the staff were left to untangle whether an individual’s mental health condition had led to homelessness or homelessness itself had caused the affliction. We were straddled by laws that made violence the determining factor whether someone would receive treatment. The “dangerous” were assisted, the peaceful left to fend for themselves or perish.

On an offramp corner, a young lady stood for days, soiled and with unintentional dreadlocks. She wore sole-less Disney princess shoes, sizes too small, and clutched a water bottle laced with miscellaneous microchip parts. Her eyes were at constant drift for dangers she’d recognized too late. She was as vulnerable as someone left for dead on a sidewalk. And she had been. The police passed but could not be waved down.

As a systemic symbol, the recurrent maimed wheelchairs in which many arrived at our hospital doors were as apt as any—disabled people living on the streets with disabled devices. Or the cases of scabies that were left untreated for so long that layers of clothing had furrowed and grafted onto the skin, laced deep down into the dermis like third-degree burns to the point that reconstructive surgery was required.

Now, many cash-strapped social-service programs have been gobbled up by tech companies, with practitioners forced to spend more time on computers than with clients. The giant corporations are invested to ingest data on homelessness—churning destitution into data—profiting from poverty rather than alleviating it.

At Zomba Prison in Malawi, a giant of a guard once blocked my exit and demanded, “Are there any poor people in America?”

When I replied that there were, he poked me hard in the rib with his knuckle and persisted, “No! I mean really poor people. People with no shoes.”

I pondered this for a moment and then told him that such people actually did exist in the USA, that usually they were homeless.

That word stopped him. Even in the world’s number-one poorest nation, such a concept did not exist. No matter how tiny a clay-and-thatch hut, almost no one was ever turned away from it without shelter.

He shook his head in pity, unable to match or top it. America had prevailed again.

This inhumanity occurs not due to lack of wealth but will.

Homelessness is an act of war that we’re all complicit in, to varying degrees.

The more that any single individual life is overexalted and indulged, the less that human life as a whole must be cheapened to compensate.

The day that a person first stepped over another passed out on a sidewalk was as monumental a cultural moment as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

The resulting slaughter fills our streets.

Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer (Tinariwen, The Good Ones [Rwanda], Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ustad Saami [Pakistan], Zomba Prison Project) and author. Since 1993 he has taught violence prevention for such prestigious organizations as the University of London, UC Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome). His fifth book, Silenced by Sound: the music meritocracy myth was just published in September by PM Press.


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The New Age of Protest

Photograph Source: Marcus Coblyn – CC BY 2.0

Led by young people, climate strikers blocked traffic on two mornings at the end of last month in Washington, DC. On the first day, protestors chained themselves to a boat three blocks from the White House, and 32 activists were arrested. On the second day, activists targeted the EPA and Trump International Hotel. It was a not-so-subtle suggestion to commuters stuck in their cars on those mornings to think more favorably about public transportation or telecommuting. It was also a potent reminder, as Congress remains polarized on so many issues, that some paralysis is healthy in the nation’s capital.

The DC protests were part of a global climate strike that involved an estimated 6.6 million people. In New Zealand, 3.5 percent of the population participated. Melbourne, Berlin, and London each had rallies of 100,000 people. In Seattle, over a thousand workers walked out of Amazon headquarters, demanding that the company reduce its carbon emissions to zero.

It wasn’t just the children of the privileged in the industrialized world who were out on the streets. Protests took place in 125 countries and 1,600 cities, including 15 cities in the Philippines, throughout India, and all over Africa.

The global climate strike is just the latest mass protest this year. Demonstrations have roiled Hong Kong since the beginning of the summer. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets in Moscow through the fall to protest restrictions on local elections. Thousands of Brazilians thronged major cities to condemn their president’s handling of the Amazon fires, and the same outrage prompted people to gather with placards in front of Brazilian embassies all over the world. Protests against Venezuela’s leadership that broke out on January 1 have recently dwindled even as demonstrations to remove Haiti’s president have heated up and security forces have cracked down on Iraqis protesting the corruption and inefficiency of their government.

Anti-government rallies in Serbia became some of the longest running protests in Europe this summer. Elsewhere in Europe, the yellow vests continued to target the government of Emmanuel Macron into 2019. In the UK, thousands gathered to protest Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament in September.

Protestors marched last month in South Africa to decry rising violence against women. At the beginning of the year, the Women’s March 2019 again focused anger at Donald Trump and his administration’s record on women’s issues, while gun control supporters held “recess rallies” around the United States in August to push for stricter limits on firearms. After massive protests helped oust the previous prime minister in 2016, candlelight protests again returned to South Korea this last weekend as 800,000 people gathered to support an embattled justice minister and his reform agenda.

Analysts almost daily bemoan the erosion in democratic values that has accompanied the rise of autocratic politicians. And indeed, recourse to the streets can be a sign that people no longer believe that the ordinary mechanisms of democracy are working.

Viewed another way, however, the sheer number of protests and their geographic spread prove that 2019 was a banner year for engagement, for participation, for democracy. As protestors like to chant, this is what democracy looks like.

Ahead to the Past?

Fifty years ago, young people also declared that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. In Warsaw in 1968, Polish students demonstrated in defense of free speech and against police brutality. It was part of a larger rebellion in the Soviet bloc, led by Alexander Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” reforms in Czechoslovakia. Students in Germany contacted their rebellious counterparts on the other side of the Iron Curtain as part of their own campus actions. In Paris, meanwhile, French students took over the streets with slogans like “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”

It was a worldwide phenomenon. Students mobilized in Mexico, Pakistan, and Japan. The first protests against the military dictatorship began in Brazil. And, of course, huge anti-Vietnam War demonstrations convulsed the United States.

Then as now, young people were upset with government repression, grievous policies of war and environmental destruction, and systemic sclerosis. They were critical of an imposed political consensus – by military juntas, communist governments, and the joint efforts of liberal and conservative politicians in the democratic world.

But there was also hope. Young people believed in 1968 that they could create new societies – at the micro-level in communes, in newly radicalized city councils, and even at a national level like Dubcek’s experiment in Czechoslovakia. “Beneath the paving stones – the beach!” French students wrote on the walls of Paris that year.

Alas, many of the protests of 1968 ended in tragedy. The Polish government threw the students in jail. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and ended Dubcek’s experiment. The Mexican government killed untold number of students. Richard Nixon was reelected in the United States, and the Vietnam War dragged on for another seven years.

Today, young people are operating under a sky full of ominous clouds. They aren’t filling the streets to create a new world so much as to save the old, imperfect one. If 1968 was a year of utopian protest, 2019 has been one long effort to prevent a dystopian future.

The Clampdown

The protests of 2019, so far at least, have not produced much change. In some countries, the pushback has been terrifying.

During a summer of escalating protests, Russian authorities detained 2,000 people, most of them young. The vast majority of the detainees were subsequently released. But several were convicted of various offenses, including inciting a riot, and sentenced to several years in prison. “I can say with certainty that Russia is striving inevitably towards freedom,” 21-year-old protestor Egor Zhukov said at his trial. “I don’t know whether I will be freed, but Russia certainly will be.” He is currently under house arrest and has been put on a government blacklist of terrorists. This week, 25,000 people returned to the streets in Moscow to demand the release of all those arrested over the summer.

As China celebrated its seventieth year of Communist rule, protestors in Hong Kong tried to upstage the proceedings. For the first time, police fired live ammunition at the crowds. One high school student was hit in the shoulder. Of the 51 people who went to the hospital, two are in critical condition. The protests, which have been going on for over 100 days, have not been entirely nonviolent. Protestors have thrown gasoline bombs and beaten police with metal pipes. The policy, too, have been increasingly aggressive. An air of desperation is settling over the scene.

In the United States, a few scattered protests have taken place in support of the impeachment of Donald Trump. The president’s wrath, meanwhile, has been focused closer to home. Trump has lashed out at the person who blew the whistle on his conduct with foreign leaders, which precipitated the Democratic Party’s decision to press ahead with an impeachment inquiry. Trump called the CIA whistleblower “close to a spy” – well, duh, the person does work for the CIA – and a “traitor.” Trump publicly lamented that the United States no longer treats traitors the way it once did (presumably by imposing the death penalty). Given his willingness to put his own interests – and occasionally the interests of other countries – above the national interest, Trump may one day soon be relieved that the United States has changed its policy toward traitors.

Even worse, Trump has retweeted pastor Robert Jeffress’ contention that the United States could descend into a “civil war” if the president is impeached. This is the closest that a president has come to a call to arms within the country since the 1850s. It’s one thing for an autocrat like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping to use the apparatus of the state to suppress protests. It’s quite another for a democratically elected leader to threaten to call on his well-armed supporters to rise up against the state itself.

As in 1968, the protestors can’t expect immediate results. It took twenty more years before the student protestors in Poland and Czechoslovakia would oust the governments that suppressed them. Mexico is no longer a one-party state, and Pakistan is more or less a democracy. Despite Jair Bolsonaro’s best efforts, Brazil has not returned to the days of military dictatorship.

Patience, however, is not the best strategy when it comes to climate change. The ice continues to melt. The temperatures continue to rise. Extreme weather events continue to happen. As the old advertising jingle used to go, you can’t fool Mother Nature. The #FridaysforFuture movement isn’t really a bunch of rebellious students. If they had one unified message last month, it was: please, for the sake of the planet, listen to your Mother!

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Lawless Trump-Canada Connections

Photograph Source: Presidencia de la República Mexicana – Public Domain

Canada recently seized and sold $30 million worth of Iranian properties in Ottawa and Toronto, a gross hypocrisy explains Yves Engler in light of oversights of more flagrant US and Israel terror victims.

But the behaviour of Canada Foreign Affairs in joining the lawless US war of sanctions, embargos and military threats against Iran goes deeper than hypocrisy.

It is another vassal-state violation of international law on behalf of US rogue policies around the world against majority world societies not fully subjugated to US corporate-profit rule – now against China, against Venezuela, and against Iran and Yemen most ec0-genocidally.

The US backed and armed Saudi bombing of Yemen and mass famine as a weapon of war is more brutal to civilians than in Vietnam, and on behalf of the more despotic and anti-democratic Islamic theocracy of Saudi Arabia.

Yet how many know that it is this same illegal US embargo war against Iran and accompanying armed terror against its oil trading partners that has caused Canada’s disastrous rift with China and its refusal to purchase long-time major Canada agricultural exports to China now ruining Western farmers?

We have been told the story-line by Canada’s government and the media that the now long imprisonment of lead China businesswoman Meng Wanzhou is “strictly abiding by the rule of law” and “China cannot or does not want to understand how the rule of law works”.

In fact, the detention is of the CFO of China’s world-leading telecommunications giant, Huawei, occurred as Huawei was surpassing the long US monopoly giants in global sales, and while the Trump administration was – and remains – in the midst of other strong-arm trade sanctions on China to recover lost market shares to now more competitive Chinese industries.

The fact that it is US corporations themselves which have shipped American jobs en masseto China – predicted by critics of the borderless transnational corporate trade regime throughout – is reverse-blamed on China as the US is silently in trouble even in cell-phone communications where it has long dominated world trade.

Trump has implicitly acknowledged that the US demand for extradition of Meng Wanzhou is part of his trade war with China, and that – mighty white of him – he might work for the release of two Canadians imprisoned in response (for which pervasive Foreign Affairs  Minister Freeland, who has presided over this whole disaster for Canada, unctuously – and futilely – thanked him for nothing).

Minister Freeland has long pretended the fit-up arrest and detention of Huawei’s CEO Meng Wanzhou in transit at a Canadian airport has been to uphold ‘the rule of law’ as sacred. Yet the extraterritorial state arrest is in fact only obeying a US extradition warrant for Huawei’s alleged violation of the US’s illegal trade war on Iran!

That this extra-territorial demand is for no offense committed under Canada or international law is not reported even by the press. That the offense alleged is against an illegal US embargo of Iran by export controls to which Canada is not a party is deleted across government accounts and the media.

At the same time, Trump’s royal love-in with new Saudi tyrant Muhammad bin Salman (with Boris Johnson joining in) backs and arms the eco-genocidal destruction of neighboring Yemen, now the poorest and most war-oppressed country in the world

Needless to say, background editors of what can be spoken on the public stage ensure at every level that no joining of the dots here is allowed.  That Canada has supplied the Saudi war of aggression and mass starvation with billions worth of armored trucks, once a front-end issue, disappears from what accounts there are of the genocidal war presented by acting Saudi-king bin Salman as quick national victory.

Even although the establishment media and politicos may hate Trump, they know that US bully and vassal Canada waging corporate state war on poorer, not-fully-capitalist countries is taboo to know even for them.

It is one more dirty-secret accumulation of interconnected evils and lies out of sight under which the Creation increasingly groans.


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Turning 70: Xi’s People’s Republic of China

Photograph Source: 美国之音 – Public Domain

During the era of Sovietology, experts would pour over images of the gathered politburo in Red Square, gazing with grey monolithic interest upon the military hardware moving across the forum. An absent figure might suggest a potential coup; a new face, a sinister reshuffle. A wink, a smile, a glare, a compendium of bodily moves that might shed light on the destiny of the Soviet Union. In the end, no level of expertise, nor heights of psycho-babble, prepared the Sovietologist for the end of their subject.

Seventy years on, and the People’s Republic of China sees no sign of going the way of the Soviet model. Market Leninism, or Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, has done its trick, and its magic – the billionaires, the luxury goods, the feverish manufacturing, the Belt and Road Initiative – troubles the modern gaggle of China watchers. That, and much more besides.

The parade itself was decidedly dramatic, ostentatiously baroque in scope and flourish. Supersonic un-manned drones made their stage debut; nuclear missiles were given a showing. In the crowded mix were 15,000 personnel, 160 aircraft and 580 pieces of weaponry. But the scale of such performances often belies loss: the immense self-harm of the Cultural Revolution, the murderous Great Leap Forward which seemed all too often to be a Great Retarding Moment. The China of the 1950s was characterised by rigid central planning marked by “agricultural producer cooperatives” and their successor Rural People’s Communes. The market was the enemy, and had, not so much to be tamed but eliminated. The results, at various points, were staggeringly costly: the famine of 1959-1961 gathered the lives of some 30 million. Sinologists were convinced they were seeing a creature on its deathbed.

By the 1980s, the script had changed. Shanghai born veteran China watcher Arthur Doak Barnett, writing for the establishment Foreign Affairs in 1986, noted the “180-degree change of direction from Mao’s last years” with the move from “ideological dogmatism” to “eclectic pragmatism, from extreme totalitarianism toward liberalized authoritarianism, from a command economy toward ‘market socialism’, and from autarkic isolationism toward international interdependence.”

The language of that particular American mandarin is telling: China had woken up, a ray of enlightenment streaming through its policy. And it seemed to be, within reason at least, behaving, tasting the merits of a liberalised economy and casting aside dogmatism. Even more telling, Doak Barnett described China’s achievements up till that point as a series of failed endeavours: the collapse of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 which led to a republic worn and torn by war lords; the efforts of the Kuomintang to patch things up in the 1920s falling before the predatory efforts of Imperial Japan and the opportunistic inroads of the Communists. Only with the victory of Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949 would some semblance of stability return.

Till the early 1970s, China was treated in various Western circles, notably the United States, as the lunatic who had gained control of the asylum. It was for other powers in the West to give credence in recognising the PRC and finally acknowledging that the Kuomintang, fox-holed in Taiwan, would not be returning to the mainland anytime too soon.

This approach was heavy with condescension, and both US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger could never quite agree who it was who came up with the idea of “bringing in” China from the arctic of international relations. But as part of the Nixon power play of détente, China would be courted, and suspicions between Beijing and Moscow stoked.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the absence of any rival, balancing power, the United States hunkered down in preparation for countering any emerging threats, drinking the intoxicating brew that was the Project for the New American Century. China’s development was welcomed, but the watchers were keenly taking note of any flexing muscle from Beijing. Besides, with more money, the country might start to flirt with liberal democracy.

In 2007, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing, building upon his understanding of financial systems and global capitalism, noted China’s inexorable rise, and realisation, that aspiring hegemons must control finance and capital, far more so than technology or labour. The US, he argued, was on the wane, as it had been for some time. This paved the way for a potential Chinese-led East Asian primacy. This new hegemony, argued Arrighi, need not be militaristic, and certainly not in the order of previous US-European models. And China’s rise might well foster a more humane form of development, one not exactly capitalist but based on market exchange.

Much of this can be contested. The PRC at 70 is certainly boisterous and keen to offer alternatives for the developing world. It is squeezing out rival aid donors in Africa and the Pacific. It is proving more than a match in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. During the celebrations, China’s current President Xi Jinping was giving little hint that dogmatism has been put bed. He made it clear that “no force can shake the status of this great nation” but nor has he criticised such events as the Cultural Revolution as Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, did.

The rule of emperors has been reaffirmed. China, with its spanking new set of spectacles, is reading off a different script of power that seeks to balance the ledger of history. Desperate, the US and its allies are attempting to reclassify the state as being “developed”, a designation that would require different economic treatments under the rules of the World Trade Organisation.

The China watchers, like the Sovietologists of old, have been returning to images of the parade, pondering the advances of weaponry and Xi’s message. His speech, made on Tiananmen Square, was dough and staple, but did what was necessary. “Today a socialist China is standing in front of the world.” No force, he insisted, could stop the PRC. The “century of humiliation” endured under the Qing Dynasty was being mightily addressed. The program of “complete unification of the country” would continue. Even with these remarks, Muslim Uighurs remain in “vocational education centres” in Xinjiang, and Hong Kong risks fracturing.

There was something for everybody. The weapon gazers took interest in the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, a lethal delight reserved for the end. With a range of 12,000 to 15,000 km, the DF-41 has been described as “China’s first road-mobile missile” making it less vulnerable in any pre-emptive strikes. It also sports decoys and anything up to 10 independently manoeuvrable warheads. Pentagon officials will be fretting.

Amidst the anxious notes and concerns, some strikingly earthbound assessments on this seven-decade old power have been registered. “There are many problems in the world that cannot be handled without China’s cooperation.” This include the digital economy, managing IT monsters, crypto currencies, arms treaties, and exploring space. Sound observations from the editorial of Japan’s The Mainichi, despite its reservations about Xi’s turn towards authoritarian romance. But such words are not finding their mark in Washington. The war in trade and rhetoric continues.

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We’ve Waited Too Long for Corporations to Fix the CEO Pay Problem on Their Own

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

I went on CNBC’s Squawk Box this week to talk about a new proposal from Senator Bernie Sanders to put tax penalties on corporations with extreme gaps between their CEO and worker pay. This is an issue I’ve been working on for many years.

In fact, a dozen years ago, in August 2007, I had also appeared on Squawk Box to talk about solutions to our runaway CEO pay problem. Back then I was particularly critical of the massive payouts going to Wall Street executives like then-CEO of Countrywide Financial, Angelo Mozilo. Rising foreclosure rates on his company’s sub-prime mortgages were already causing jitters. But when I questioned Mozilo’s $43 million paycheck, the CNBC host and other guests nearly bit my head off.

“Mozilo built that company from nothing!” I remember one of them shouting into my earpiece. “His shareholders believe he walks on water!”

As we know now, Mozilo had built his massive fortune on nothing but a house of cards. Four months after this CNBC show, Countrywide didn’t even exist.

Mozilo was just one of many bonus-chasing Wall Street executives whose recklessness drove the U.S. economy off a cliff. In the aftermath of that meltdown, I had hoped that big corporations and their shareholders would solve the broken executive pay system on their own. Why would anyone continue to tolerate a system that is all about short-term gains for those at the top — regardless of the consequences for the rest of us?

But more than a decade later, the myths that propped up Angelo Mozilo remain prevalent.

Others on the CNBC show this week reiterated the widely debunked theory that the free market determines pay. Up and down the corporate ladder, they claimed, employees are paid what they’re worth — even if that results in vast pay divides, with CEOs making hundreds of times more than their employees.

I got a little impatient with this point of view, as you can see in the video excerpt posted by CNBC.

The discussion made me even more convinced that the time is now for public policy to rein in these persistently extreme CEO-worker pay gaps. Corporations will not change their practices on their own.

A new Institute for Policy Studies report I co-authored analyzes the potential impact of a federal tax penalty on companies with huge pay gaps, as Sanders and others have proposed. We applied graduated rates, from 1 percentage point on companies with CEO-median worker pay ratios over 100 to 1 to 5 percentage points on ratios above 500 to 1.

What we found is that if such taxes had been in place last year, S&P 500 corporations would have owed as much as $17.2 billion more in 2018 federal taxes. This is assuming that the companies didn’t change the size of their gaps. Ideally, of course, they would respond to the tax by narrowing their gaps — by lifting up the bottom or bringing down the top (or both).

We also looked at how much more certain companies with particularly large gaps would’ve owed the IRS if they didn’t narrow their gaps.

Walmart, for example, with a pay gap of 1,076 to 1, would have owed as much as $794 million in extra federal taxes in 2018 with this penalty in place. With those millions, the federal government could have extended food stamp benefits to 520,997 people for an entire year.

Marathon Petroleum, with a 714-to-1 gap, would have owed an extra $228 million, more than enough to provide annual heating assistance for 126,000 low-income people.

CVS, a drug store chain with a 618-to-1 ratio, would have added a revenue stream that could have provided annual Medicare prescription benefits for 33,977 seniors.

A tax penalty on extreme pay gaps would give corporations an incentive to finally narrow these obscene divides. If they still refuse to do so, the tax will generate revenue that can be used for inequality-reducing public services and investments. We’ve waited too long for big corporations to do the right thing on their own.

This column first appeared on

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