Counterpunch Articles

By Any Other Name: American “Frustrationism”

“C’mon, of course the President’s not racist, but he’s frustrated like so many Americans are.”

— Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)

Well, I certainly do not think the President’s a racist. I believe the President shares a lot of American’s frustration with Congress, particularly those four women congressmen….”

–Rep. James Comer (R-Kentucky).

“There’s nothing that is more upsetting to a conservative than to have their racism recognized as racism. You can call it anything else.”

Sam Seder, The Majority Report

Is Trump a racist? Unequivocally. Does it matter? Of course. But does it really?

Racists in America face few consequences. They are not put on race-offender lists. People are not warned of racists in their community, on the police force, or, well, in the White House. They can – and obviously do – vote in federal elections, and they dial 911 on the flimsiest of pretexts without fear of penalty. If they carry a badge, and often even when they don’t, they can kill people of color with impunity. Sure, they may lose a job, have to relocate, or be banned from Twitter (unless, of course, they happen to be the president of the United States), but for the most part, they remain at large. After all, despite the human suffering it creates, racism itself is not a crime but an antisocial behavior that is tolerated unless it is deemed a hate crime.

Trump’s latest tweet against four Democratic congresswomen of color seems to have finally crossed the media’s red line. An obtusely oblivious corporate media that had hesitated to call him racist sans scare quotes has belatedly discovered what has boldly been starring them in the face all along. Still, some in politicians continue to call only the tweet racist without applying the label to its prolific author, as if it somehow magically wrote itself.

Indeed, Trump and his enablers remain convinced that racism does not exist in his heart or any of his bones, preferring to attribute his outbursts to more benign causes. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, assures us that Trump is not a racist but a narcissist. This is the same Graham who in 2015 dismissed Trump as “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” but who today shamelessly ups the ante on Trump’s original tweet by denouncing “The Squad” as an “anti-Semitic,” “anti-American” “bunch of communists” who “hate Israel” and “hate our own country,” slanders which Trump quotes and adds to his own expanding arsenal of inflammatory defamations.

Then there are Reps. Jim Jordan and James Comer, both of whom see Trump not as a racist but a, well, frustrationist, a view also shared by Vice President Mike Pence, who has said that Trump is simply “expressing the frustration of the American people.” Apparently, frustration makes you single out black and brown women, question their citizenship, patriotism, and call for them to “go back to their countries” or forcibly sent there. In this respect, the symptoms of frustration seem a lot like the side effects of Ambien, the drug of choice for those suffering from Roseanne Barr Syndrome: namely, the irresistible urge to hurl racist insults.

That some of Trump’s defenders have chosen to attribute his behavior to frustration may be because, at the risk of indulging in Trumpian hyperbole, he is the most frustrated president in U.S. history, at least as tallied by the media which, until his latest, unequivocably racist diatribe was reluctant to label him racist and was more than comfortable pushing the narrative that he is only immensely frustrated. Just Google the words “Trump” and “frustration.” The list of Trump’s frustrations is unending: “Frustrated Trump ‘Chewed Out’ Staff for Failed Venezuela Coup” (Newsweek, June 20, 2019), “President Was Frustrated: Barr Defends Trump’s Hurt Feelings in Pre-Mueller Presser” (Vanity Fair, April 18, 2019). “Frustrated Trump Demands to Speak to Twitter’s Manager” (Yahoo News, April 24, 2019). Other reports have noted Trump’s frustration with trade talks with China (Reuters, June 28, 2017, lack of progress with his Wall (The Associated Press, April 3, 2018), the stalemate in Afghanistan (Washington Post, August 21, 2018), the Fed’s independent policies (Associated Press, June 11, 2019), the Russia probe (PBS, February 18, 2018), the government shutdown (Washington Post, January 14, 2019), and “my generals” (Roll Call, January 14, 2019). He was even frustrated with former Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielson (New Yorker, May 17, 2018) but not enough to question her loyalty to the U.S., label her a “commie,” or demand that she go back to her “homeland” (perhaps because in his mind albescent Norway is not a “shithole country”). There is even an entire website devoted to “Frustrated Trump GIFs.” In none of these instances did the tantrum-prone man-child of Mar-a-Lago spew racist invectives at the source of his frustration.

Television dramedies aside, orange may not be the new black (if it were, Trump could not resist the urge to slur himself), but “frustrationism” is the new racism, in the same way “I feared for my life” has become the go-to rationalization for police shootings.

It is telling that in a country built by slaves and founded by slaveowners, congressional decorum forbids calling our “frustrationist” president racist. Hence the kerfuffle that occurred when Nancy Pelosi, whose own earlier dismissive comments against her progressive colleagues (her own Sister Souljah moment) opened the door to Trump’s attack, introduced a House resolution that denounced the president’s racist comments as just that, though, significantly, not the president himself, the House speaker apparently unaware that bullies like Trump are drawn to vulnerability like sharks to blood.

So intense was the squabbling that Speaker pro tempore Rep. Emanuel Cleaver dropped his gavel and abandoned the chair because he was “embarrassed” by the dysfunctionality of a Congress, he said, whose “goal was to make things worse.” Asked on CNN what he planned to do the next time the president tweets, Cleaver responded, that we should “forget the man’s tweets,” asserting, “All the chaos that’s taking place here in Washington derives from one human being and a tweet. And I think we’re having government by tweet, legislation by tweet, debate by tweet. And I think at some point, we the legislators, as well, frankly, as the media, let the president just tweet away, tweet away his presidency. But we can’t continue to react to this. He’s going to insult some others, he’s going to speak some untruths and so forth. We need to just let him, uh, hang out at the White House and do that (my emphasis). To the degree that we still do some legislation and get some things done, we ought to do it.”

In other words, the House would punish Richie Rich by sending him to his room (which in this case happens to be the Oval Office) to tweet out more racist insults – but don’t dare call them that in the hallowed halls of the House – to his heart’s content, and then forget about them so that Congress can do its job, including, one would hope, the actual exercise of congressional oversight that grants it the authority to pursue actions against the president’s habitual misconduct far harsher than merely censuring his language and grounding him. The fact that the Democrat-controlled House has decided not to do so suggests that it embraces two worrisome, self-defeating and ultimately election-losing assumptions: 1) that Trump’s racist tweets will eventually turn Americans against him rather than attract them and expand his base, and 2) that his racism is a distraction from more urgent national concerns when, in fact, as it impacts the very nature of our democracy, it is the main event and should be confronted accordingly.

Some pundits on both the left and the right, such as Van Jones and Anthony Scaramucchi, wonder why Trump would play the race card when it would be more politically advantageous for him to play up his economic achievements. The answer, they suggest, is that it is all part of some elaborate master plan designed to energize his base and the Republican Party as a whole, a kind of twenty-first century reboot of the Southern Strategy on Red Bull (read Republican BS).

However, this view is myopic. For even granting that the current and, as Elizabeth Warren warns, potentially short-lived “economic boom” is the result of Trumpian policies and not a carryover from the Obama years – and there are good reasons to believe the latter – it should not blind us to the president’s racist demagoguery or deter us from doing something about it, before it is too late. Significantly, polls show that while Trump get props for the economy, his overall approval ratings remain low in comparison, which suggests both that Trump does not actually care about his overall approval (or perhaps, more ominously given his rising approval rating among Republicans in the wake of his racist tweets, he thinks they will inflate it) and that his demagoguery is motivated by a political calculation that there is a sizeable segment of the electorate that is eager to make a Faustian bargain that trades economic growth for social justice, the rule of law, and basic human decency.

Fifty-one years ago, in the Prevalence of Nonsense, Ashley Montague and Edward Darling wrote of a similar trade off, citing a popular myth surrounding another preening, chin-jutting strongman: “Mussolini may have done many brutal and tyrannical things; he may have destroyed human freedom in Italy; he may have murdered and tortured citizens whose only crime was to oppose Mussolini; but ‘one had to admit’ one thing about the Dictator: he ‘made the trains run on time.’”

 

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Ecological Limits and the Working Class

Blue Heron Mill, Oregon City. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In the latest issue of Catalyst Magazine that is published by Bhaskar Sunkara, there is an article titled “Ecological Politics for the Working Class” by Syracuse University professor Matt Huber, which argues for the need to abandon the “middle class” orientation of the ecologists whose worldview was shaped by the 1960s radicalization. (I guess that includes me.)

These people with their affinity for the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil or the struggle for clean water in Flint, Michigan are neglecting the mainstream proletariat that sounds like Donald Trump voters:

It was working-class loggers who opposed the protection of the spotted owl or the restoration of salmon runs in the Columbia River. As Richard White recounts, the bumper sticker “Are you an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?” became popular among rural working-class communities.

To woo such people into a revolutionary movement, the emphasis should be on winning urban and suburban workers to the Green New Deal that is a lynchpin of Sunkara’s developing journalistic empire rather than “the struggles of poor rural populations (peasants, indigenous peoples, etc.) over land, resources, and environmental degradation within a Marxist political-economic framework.” Since most people are wage workers who have been dispossessed of land through “primitive accumulation” over the past four centuries at least, why waste time with the “marginal” population in Brazil, for example? For every Yanomami, there are likely 100,000 wage workers. That’s the argument, anyhow.

Huber also views the Environmental Justice Movement in the industrialized north as having the same kind of glass ceiling. These coastal fishermen, drought-prone farmers, etc. are vulnerable to the effects of climate change and land or water pollution but what about the majority of wage-earners who are not exposed to any apparent threat of toxic pollution? Huber certainly feels sorry for some Bangladeshi farmer or fisherman whose life will be destroyed by rising ocean levels but has to question how such struggles could ever have the social power capable of taking on a capitalist class that is responsible for the dispossession and pollution in the first place. Since Huber and everybody else who writes for Sunkara’s magazines have placed their bets on the Sanders campaign for “taking on capital”, you are left with the dismaying feeling that they are armed with a very blunt instrument. For a Yanomami or a Bangladesh farmer or fisherman, the stakes are very high. For a machinist working at Boeing or a Verizon lineman in suburban New Jersey, there are worries about climate change but it doesn’t have the same immediacy as living in a village near the Indian Ocean.

Matt Huber first came to my attention when I spotted his article “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” in the DSA magazine in May. He singled out Richard Smith, one of my favorite Green scholars, as a “dystopian” since he supports a socialist program of “managed deindustrialization”. Huber complains that he doesn’t fully explain what that would mean. If you go to the Common Dreams article that irks Huber, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the term speaks for itself in light of this example:

Take just one: Cruise ships are the fastest growing sector of mass tourism on the planet. But they are by far the most polluting tourist indulgence ever invented: Large ships can burn more than 150 tons of the filthiest diesel bunker fuel per day, spewing out more fumes—and far more toxic fumes—than 5 million cars, polluting entire regions, the whole of southern Europe – and all this to ferry a few thousand boozy passengers about bashing coral reefs. There is just no way this industry can be made sustainable.

Would phasing out these floating monstrosities be a concession to the “small is beautiful”, hairshirt-wearing eco-socialists who were inspired by Barry Commoner or Rachel Carson? That’s a concession I’d make myself, even at the risk of being labeled a neo-Malthusian.

Back in 1991, when I first began working at Columbia University, I used to spend a lot of time browsing through the books and magazines of Labyrinth bookstore, where I first ran into a magazine called LM. It was originally called Living Marxism and featured snazzy-looking graphics like Jacobin’s. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that its “Marxism” clashed with my own since it published articles denying climate change as well as supporting nuclear power and GMO. Their stance against neo-Malthusian Greens sounded a lot like what Huber is arguing.

While I don’t know what Huber’s views on GMO are, he did claim in the DSA article that it was a major advance when chemicals began to do the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil. He also backed Leigh Phillip’s open letter to Bernie Sanders urging him “to change his mind and embrace nuclear energy.” Phillips, the author of “Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff”, was cited in Huber’s Catalyst article as someone who is on the same wave-length as him. Phillips was also on the same wave-length as Spiked Online, the website that emerged out of LM Magazine and that featured an excerpt from his book.

Phillips and Huber are throwbacks to the early 90s LM writers who shared their “productivist” version of Marxism. In essence, this takes a single sentence out of The Communist Manifesto and builds an anti-environmentalist program that, except for the Marxist rhetoric, has much in common with Gregg Easterbrook or Bjørn Lomborg. When Marx wrote “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society”, people like Phillips and Huber decided that this meant embracing nuclear power, GMO and all the rest. This is a very narrow understanding of Marx, virtually the eye of a needle that a camel could not pass through.

When Vivek Chibber, the editor of Catalyst, published Huber’s article, he was clearly expressing his affinity for this brand of ecomodernism that was featured in a special issue of Jacobin two years ago. It included an article by Phillips and Michal Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that put a kosher stamp on nuclear power: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” In his letter urging Bernie Sanders to embrace nuclear power, Phillips assured him that the human costs of Chernobyl were exaggerated. Even though there were likely 4,000 people who would die eventually because of exposure, it was a lot less than Greenpeace and other groups alleged.

In an article on Kate Brown’s new book “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future”, MIT News came up with a different assessment than Phillips’s: “The Ukrainian state pays benefits to about 35,000 people whose spouses apparently died from Chernobyl-caused illnesses. Some scientists have told her they think 150,000 deaths is a more likely baseline for the Ukraine alone.”

The bulk of Huber’s article is devoted to debunking the notion of ecological limits, sometimes called “carrying capacity”. He writes:

One of the most influential texts was William Catton’s Overshoot, which explained how human resource use had “overshot” the carrying capacity of the Earth and mass die-off was imminent. Environmental politics rose and expanded precisely during the period of neoliberal restraint. It subscribed to what Leigh Phillips terms an “austerity ecology” — a politics of limits, reducing consumption, and lessening our impact — reduce, reuse, recycle.

Perhaps the most popular strand on the eco-left today is the program of “degrowth” defined in a recent compilation as “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that will reduce societies’ throughput of energy and raw materials.”

You get the same sort of thing from Phillips in his “Austerity Ecology” book. He writes:

The mantra we keep hearing from the anti-growth advocates, “You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet,” seems so obviously true. Which is why it is so seductive to green activists. It’s designed perfectly for a banner or placard. But it is only true if the rate of consumption is fixed, and we have just shown how in two clear ways—technological innovation and reorganization of our political economy—we can alter the rate of consumption. Indeed, the rate is constantly changing.

What you won’t find in either Huber’s article or Phillips’s book is a serious attempt to deal with the economic data that supports the conclusion that ecological limits is a real thing. Take for example Jason Hickel’s “Is it Possible to Achieve a Good Life for All Within Planetary Boundaries?” and you will be struck by the extensive bibliography that references 99 scholarly articles that, like his, crunch the kind of numbers that are blissfully ignored by Huber and Phillips.

Hickel’s article is focused on the contradictions he found in a 2015 UN report titled “Sustainable Development Goals”. In essence, poverty reduction required economic growth at the expense of sustainability. If the goal was to elevate poor nation’s well-being to the standards of Europe or the USA, even at a middle-class level, the consequences would be environmental degradation of the kind highlighted in a UN report two months ago that warned about the imminent extinction of 1,000,000 species.

To be taken seriously in discussions about ecological limits, you need to deal with real numbers rather than empty abstractions about how “technological innovation” can fix all these problems like the wand used by the sorcerer’s apprentice. The proper balance is struck in country’s that lie within the middle tier of UN Human Development Indicators such as Belarus. At a $7.40 per day level, Belarus is the most promising, according to Hickel. It has a minimal social shortfall (a score of 0.98) excluding qualitative indicators, with an average biophysical score is 1.64. In other words, they are close to being balanced. The biophysical score is connected to the country’s level of resource extraction and other factors related to “footprint”, which means the amount of infrastructure and resources necessary to sustain a population. In a country like Mauritania, with a preponderance of migratory herders, the footprint is quite low.

After examining all the numbers, Hickel concludes that the only way that the contradiction between human and nature can be resolved is by the most advanced countries undergoing some loss of material goods such as the luxury cruises that Richard Smith views as unnecessary.

Naturally, the most unequal use of resources between the wealthy North and the poverty-stricken South is energy. Even with the development of alternative energy sources, the North continues to derive vast amounts of energy from natural gas and oil. Hickel is blunt about what has to be done:

In sum, there is no empirical evidence to support the notion that rich nations can make sufficiently dramatic reductions in resource use and emissions while at the same time pursuing economic growth…In light of this, achieving a good life for all within planetary boundaries will require that rich nations begin to gradually downscale their aggregate economic activity, embarking on a trajectory of planned de-growth. One approach would be to gradually reduce the size of the population (in an equitable, progressive and non-coercive way), so that GDP per capita can be maintained even while total economic activity shrinks. But if we assume that the population grows according to existing projections and stabilises at 9–11 billion, this will require de-growth in both absolute and per capita terms. Scholars argue that de-growth can be achieved without any loss to social indicators, and could further enhance human well-being if done equitably.

In an article titled “Degrowth: a theory of radical abundance”, Hickel takes the sting out of a possible future that Huber and Phillips see as a fate worse than death. Being deprived of luxury liner cruises, 5,000 square-foot suburban houses, central air-conditioning, beef four nights a week, and SUVs might sting at first but a 30 hour work week, a job guarantee and a living wage might assuage all except the most rabid Trump voter. Add to this access to high-quality, generous public healthcare, education, affordable housing, transportation, utilities and recreation facilities, it would go along way to keeping people satisfied. Hickel notes that a Gallup poll revealed that many countries (Germany, Austria, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Finland, Canada, Denmark, and most notably Costa Rica) have higher levels of well-being than the United States does, with less GDP per capita.

As promising as this sounds, none of this can happen under capitalism. Capitalism is driving the planet toward extinction for the simple reason that profit-seeking will allow nothing less than the subordination of humanity and nature to the corporate state. The resistance to anything resembling a degrowth agenda will be more aggressive than anything the Trump administration has come up with to this date but it will be aimed at the bulk of the American citizenry rather than immigrants, the poor and the racially oppressed.

As the final act of the capitalist system draws near, there will be the stiffest resistance to any challenge by a socialist movement internationalist enough to understand that American workers must sacrifice some privileges in order to save all of humanity and the natural world in the long run. The notion that the planet Earth is some kind of inexhaustible supply of natural resources that can guarantee some 11.2 billion people to live in peace, security and well-being by the end of the century is absurd. We can certainly understand why capitalist politicians try to maintain such illusions but it behooves those on the left to dispense with them posthaste.

As Karl Marx once put it, “But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

 

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Boris Johnson as British PM: Olive Reincarnations and Elvis on Mars

The BBC World Service took its listeners to the English cathedral town of Ely, set in picturesque Cambridgeshire, during the course of a hot July 23 in an effort to take the pulse of the country. Well, at least that particular, erratic pulse. It found, for the most part, a certain enthusiasm for Boris Johnson, the fop-haired, bumbling wonder of the Conservatives, a quite literally inventive journalist, former magazine editor and Mayor of London who has become the new prime minister of Britain.

One word kept cropping up in discussions like an endangered species searching for a bullet: enthusiasm. Plain, sprightly, delightful winged enthusiasm. “We need to be enthusiastic; Boris (because, of course, he is Boris to them) is enthusiastic.” Be gone pessimists and Cassandras; farewell such tactical and strategic realities of being in or out of the European common market; in or out of European regulations; ease of access or difficulty on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

With the Conservatives voting on who to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and, it followed, Prime Minister, Johnson won through against Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. The margin of victory – 66 to 34 percent of the party membership – was nearly two to one, and came from a system Johnson derided as a “gigantic fraud” when employed by the British Labour Party in 2007.

His victory speech had much of what has come before. It spoke of instincts – the acquisitive standing out (“the instincts to own your own house, to earn and spend your own money”). These were “noble”, “proper” and “good”. Nor should the needy be forgotten, the poor abandoned, in realising them. Words were given like those of a motivational speaker. “Do you feel daunted? I don’t think you look remotely daunted to me. And I think we know we can do it, and that the people of this country are trusting in us to do it, and we know that we will do it.” While he conceded that the campaign of deliver, united and defeat – spelled DUD – did not augur well, detractors had forgotten the E: “E for energise”. “I say to all doubters, dude, we are going to energise the country.”

The October 31st deadline for Britain’s exit from the European Union would not change. The “new spirit of can-do” would prevail. Britain, “like some slumbering giant” would “rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.” Metaphors of growth and movement abounded: “fantastic full-fibre broadband sprouting in every household”; “more police”.

The Johnson-watchers verged between being worried and thrilled. Comments seem pitched to a sporting register: How will BJ perform on the field? Will he restrain himself, or be unduly foolish on the world stage? As if describing an unusual species, Lloyd Evans remarked that, even at Oxford as a first-year student, he was “weirdly conspicuous – the ruddy jowls, the stooped bullish stances, the booming Duke of Wellington voice, and the freakish white bob crowning his head like a heavenly spotlight.”

James Forsyth, writing in The Spectator, is hopeful the real Boris is partially caged, leaving another version to do get his hands dirty. “This is a risk; will his approach sound flippant when discussing serious issues?” On balance, however, Forsyth felt that there was something to be said about the man being let loose. “When he tried to be a different kind of figure, it didn’t work. It felt forced rather than natural.”

Finance commentator and regular forecaster of economic apocalypse Robert Peston stated the cold, mad justice of it all. As Johnson had been instrumental in creating Brexit, it was only fitting that he now try to own it.

Navigating the gong tormented sea of narratives on Johnson, a few career standouts remain, making his attempt to be Big, Bold and British, unconvincing. The new British PM and Tory leader is a piece of truly befuddled work, one who still manages to play the card of the electable clown.

As a journalist, he fabricated and teased records. In 1987, when employed by The Times courtesy of family connections, he was fired for a story on the discovery of the Rose Palace, built by Edward II. His godfather, Oxford historian Colin Lucas, featured. “The trouble,” he recalled, “was that somewhere in my copy I managed to attribute to Colin the view that Edward II and Piers Gaveston would have been cavorting together in the Rose Palace.” Pity, then, that Gaveston was murdered by the time the Rose Palace was built.

After the sack, he ventured over to The Telegraph, and became a shock trooper for anti-EU sentiment in Brussels, feeding Eurosceptic fanaticism back in Britain and beyond with such choice titled pieces as “Snails are fish, says EU”, “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that EU-manure smells the same” and “Threat to British pink sausages”. Johnson’s feeling about it all? A “rather weird sense of power” that his copy had “this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party”.

His casually racist remarks on foreign powers and peoples have given him an enormous inventory of the insulted over the years, producing degrees of consternation and rib-stitching hilarity. He has deemed Africa a country, its people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, compared women who wear burqas to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes” and appraised the chaos within his own conservative party as akin to “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief killing.”

Other comments have caused less consternation, not least of all his views of the current US president, Donald Trump, whom Johnson deemed “unfit to hold the office of the United States” on account of his “stupefying ignorance”. This, from a man who himself said that becoming UK prime minister was “about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.” We live in jaw-droppingly interesting times.

Britain is in a mess, and the Boris Broom is unlikely to be able to make its bristles more effective beyond tinkering with the May-EU Brexit plan as it stands. The EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has expressed the view that some room is open on reworking “the agreed declaration on the new partnership” but that the “withdrawal agreement” would be more or less ratified in its current form.

On the diplomatic front, Johnson is bound to be confused, if his various stances on the Northern Ireland-Ireland border, or non-border, are anything to go by. Having scolded his predecessor for taking the view that having no firm border between the two would not be in the UK’s interests, he subsequently veered, telling the House of Commons that “there can be no return to a hard border.” BJ’s slumbering giant may well continue to do a bit more slumbering. Over to you, dude!

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Corporate Media’s Trashing of Bernie Sanders Starts Anew

In 2016, we learned that the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton Campaign, even before the primary season began, conspired to sabotage the campaign of her leading opponent for the presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).  The conspiracy, that ranged from obtaining campaign debate questions in advance for Clinton and front-loading primaries in states where she could pile up an imposing lead to getting a complicit liberal media to count pledged but unelected and legally uncommitted “super delegates” as being already in Clinton’s delegate total (making the Sanders campaign appears quixotic) and also to plant ill-documented and speciously argued hit pieces in news media (including the NY Times and Washington Post) willing to support the effort.

Now, as Sanders’ campaign appears to be steadily gaining on the favored establishment candidates, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, this corrupt effort to sabotage the Democrats’ most progressive and most electable candidate, Sanders, is starting up again.

Case in point: an opinion article by Antony Davies and James R Harrigan that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s opinion section today under the headline “Wage hypocrisy by Sanders?”   The gist of the two author’s argument is that Sanders, who is calling on the campaign trail for a $15/hour federal minimum wage, is a “hypocrite” because he’s only paying his own campaign staff a minimum salary of…$36,000 a year. Now that might seem pretty decent compensation for people many of whom would probably be doing their campaign jobs for free if need be (as many do on such campaigns), but Davies and Harrigan, while calculating accurately that for a 40-hour workweek such a salary works out to $17/hr, add, “as is common for campaign workers, and salaried employees more generally, these workers almost always work more than 40 hours per week.” They add, with no evidence to prove people are doing it, “For a campaign worker who clocks 50 to 60 hours, $36,000 a year hits between $11 and $13 per hour.”

Gee. That sounds terrible, except for the fact that this is a political campaign, not a grinding, a demoralizing desk job in a windowless office of some corporate hive. But more importantly and to the point, most Americans who slave away at salaried jobs simply don’t get overtime, and under federal employment law such as it is, have no right to claim it.

But here’s the real problem with this article: The authors don’t identify themselves as libertarian ideologues engaged in a long-term obsessive attack on Sanders and other self-described socialists. As a pair, they have a long back-list of articles going back over a year specifically targeting Sanders’ progressive economic ideas with headlines like:

“Paying Teachers What They are Worth” (an attack on Sanders’ call for higher pay for teachers that ends up to be an attack on teachers unions and job tenure)

“The Real Story Behind Amazon’s Taxes” (an attack on Sanders’ criticizing Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos paying no federal tax, which turns out to be an attack on Social Security and that falsely claims Sanders backed laws that allow Amazon and other companies and their owners to dodge taxes by deducting their losses and investments in prior years from current income.)

“The Billionaires versus the Politicians” (This is an attack on Elizabeth Warren, Sanders and AOC for calling for taxing the wealth of the nation’s hundreds of billionaires and multimillionaires. The two authors argue that billionaires “earned” their wealth, ignoring the reality that many, like billionaire poseur Donald Trump, inherited it and expect to pass their hoard on to their offspring, and then conclude, “So ask yourself, who represents the bigger threat? The 584 billionaires who offer us things in exchange for our money, and whom we can walk away from at any time by shopping elsewhere? Or the 535 representatives and senators who take our money by threat of force?”)

And so on…

I have no objection to such political hacks writing such screeds, but they should be honest about their real identities and agendas, not posing as neutral academics.  In Davies’ and Harrigan’s case, they are clearly hiding who they are from their readers, and perhaps their inattentive editors too.

In the Inquirer commentary, they are self-identified in their bios this way:

Anthony Davis:  Associate. Professor of economics at Duquesne University.

James R. Harrigan:  teaches in the Department of Political Economy and Moral (?!) Science at the University of Arizona (apparently Harrigan isn’t even a professor or perhaps even a lecturer).

Left unsaid: both are involved in a significant way with the Atlanta-based conservative/libertarian think tank called the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), where Davies is Milton Friedman Fellow (a position named in honor of the father of “free-market” economics), and Harrigan is F.A. Hayek Distinguished Fellow ( a position named in honor of the Anglo-Austrian free-market advocate who was the patron saint of both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.)

Why do these authors allow their works to be published in the mass media without identifying themselves in a relevant way so readers can judge the veracity of their opinions?

Actually, that question answers itself.

Perhaps more importantly, why do publications like the Philadelphia Inquirer and others that run or give free or perhaps paid space or air time to the anti-Sanders and anti-socialist screeds of these two peddlers of reaction allow them to hide behind bland academic titles and affiliations? (To be fair, the bio paragraph below the article also mentions that the two men “host the weekly podcast ‘Words and Numbers’,” but since it’s a print paper, there’s no link and few would bother to look the site up. Nor is it mentioned that the podcast is a production of FEE.)

The answer to their deception, of course, is that the goal is to use propaganda, instead of reason and full laying out of the facts, to try and undermine the sound reform ideas of Sanders, AOC and others trying to bring the US into the 21st century with the kind of tax policies, health care programs, retirement systems and education systems that work perfectly well in places like Europe, instead of allowing the country to slip where it appears headed right now back into the Dickensian darkness of unregulated capitalism, desperate, impoverished workers and rapine environmental degradation.

So is this all part of a new attack campaign on Sanders perhaps, or let’s say probably, based on prior history, orchestrated by the DNC and its favored candidates’ campaigns? Well, it certainly looks that way. On July 19, the Washington Post ran an article saying Sanders employees were demanding wages to match his call for a $15/hr minimum wage. The same day, the three clowns on Fox&Friends were gleefully yucking up the pay scale Sanders is offering his “impoverished” campaign workers, calling it hypocritical.  How does a such simultaneous attack happen?  Usually we eventually find out some publicist, in this case no doubt from the DNC or one of Sanders’ primary rivals, is pushing the story.

Left unsaid is that Sanders’ $15/hr wage bill in the Senate, on which he is basing his campaign proposal, does not raise the national minimum wage to $15 immediately on passage. Rather, it raises it from the current $7.25 an hour,(where it’s been stuck since 2009!), in increments, only reaching $15 an hour in 2024. His bill, which is being blocked from consideration in the Senate by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, calls for the minimum wage to be increased to $8.55 an hour immediately after becoming law, and then to $9.85 after a year, continuing upward until hitting $15, after which its level would be increased automatically to account for inflation, as with Social Security benefits.

So really, Sanders is already paying his campaign staff at a rate that’s 75% higher than what they’d get during the current campaign if Congress were to pass, and Trump sign his national minimum wage bill.

The post Corporate Media’s Trashing of Bernie Sanders Starts Anew appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

No Bail is Excessive Bail, Even for Jeffrey Epstein

Multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein stands accused of sex trafficking and conspiracy to traffic minors for sex. On July 18, US District Court judge Richard Berman denied bail,  ordering that Epstein be confined until trial.

The US Constitution’s Eighth Amendment is short and sweet: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

What would constitute “excessive” bail in Epstein’s case? Whatever it might be, no bail at all fits the definition, especially given what Epstein put on the table by way of a bail proposal.

There are two issues at stake:

In a 1951 case, Stack v. Boyle, the US Supreme Court held that “a defendant’s bail cannot be set higher than an amount that is reasonably likely to ensure the defendant’s presence at the trial.”

The Bail Reform Act of 1984 does provide for “preventive detention” without bail, but only if a judge “finds that no condition or combination of conditions will reasonably assure … the safety of any other person and the community.”

What would assure Epstein’s appearance at court, and protect young women from further depredations of the type he’s accused of?

Epstein offered more than $100 million in cash bail. That’s a powerful incentive to appear for trial. Perhaps not enough for someone of his means. But there’s more.

Epstein also offered to submit to house arrest at his New York residence, with an electronic bracelet to track his every move, armed guards to keep him from leaving or prospective victims from entering,  prior approval by federal authorities for ANYONE to enter, and a court-appointed live-in trustee whose sole job would be to report any violations of the bail agreement to the court. All of that paid for by Epstein himself.

Furthermore, Epstein offered to de-register and ground his personal jet, and to  preemptively waive extradition from any country on Earth.

It’s difficult to imagine a bail arrangement more fully encompassing  the two legitimate objectives of bail itself.

That offer puts the lie to what Berman called “the heart of his decision” — his doubt that “any bail package could overcome dangerousness … to community.”

That leaves two plausible explanations for Berman’s decision.

One is that, like many judges, he just habitually defers to prosecutors (who in turn habitually use “no bail” requests to grandstand as “tough on crime”).

The other is that he’s already tried and convicted Epstein in his mind and sees no reason to wait for a jury to hand him the fore-ordained “guilty” verdict before Epstein’s punishment commences.

Either way, Berman should recuse himself from the case or be removed from it.

Why should any of us care about the plight of poor, poor, ultra-rich Jeffrey Epstein? Because this kind of stuff goes on every day in courts across the land, featuring poor defendants held on minor charges. We’re only HEARING about it because Epstein is rich and infamous.

If they can do it to Epstein, they can do it to you. So they shouldn’t get away with doing it to Epstein.

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Hong Kong and Puerto Rico: Two Colonies Doomed to 2nd-Class Status and Remote Central Government Control

Two photos speak volumes about the striking similarity between Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, one an island and peninsular former colony of Britain, which conquered and held onto it since the Opium War in 1841, now returned to China, but still existing in a kind of neo-colonial relationship to that country, the other an island colony of the United States ever since the US conquered it from Spain during the 1898 Spanish-American War. Both places today contain hundreds of thousands, even millions of angry citizens demanding freedom and a right to control their own destiny.

The two photos, showing hundreds of thousands of protesters in the street demanding the resignation of their respective leaders, Chief Executive Connie Lam Jehng Yuet-ngòh in Hong Kong and Governor Ricardo Antonio Rosselló Nevares in Puerto Rico, are equally astonishing displays of raw citizen activism by people in the position of colonial subjects fed up with the corruption and subservience of their compromised puppet leaders, and with the governments that are controlling them in Beijing and Washington, DC.

Hong Kong, for nearly two centuries a colony of Britain — one in which for most of that time racist British officials lorded it over Chinese people who were often banned from government positions, restaurants and elevators, humiliated and prevented from gaining residence in the “mother country” — is now a kind of “colony” of China. The territory, now euphemistically called a Special Administrative Region of China, technically has local autonomy and a legal system based on British Common law, but it is ultimately subordinated to the government of China in Beijing, with its laws trumped by Chinese law, particularly when it comes to national security issues. Puerto Rico, a Spanish colony dating almost back to the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus until the end of the Spanish-American War, later became a colony of the US. The relationship of the island to the US remains a colonial one, though the name in 1952 was euphemistically changed to “Commonwealth” of Puerto Rico, or in Spanish the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico.

In Hong Kong, local citizens elect half the members of their Legislative Council (Legco), with the other half chosen by so-called “functional constituencies” — basically various professions from lawyers to bankers to industrialists and labor. The successor to the British colonial governor is now the Chief Executive. Where the governors were appointed by the British government, the new top position in Hong Kong is filled by Beijing, which hand-picks a selection panel of some 1000 people for the purpose. In Puerto Rico, the people on the island get to elect their legislature and their governor, but they have no elected representation in the US Congress.

In both Hong Kong and China, the residents of these places were declared citizens of the “mother country” — China in Hong Kong’s case in 1997, the United States in Puerto Rico’s case in 1917 — whether they wanted to be citizens or not. But in both cases it is a citizenship of a peculiar sort. Hong Kong residents cannot just move into and out of China freely, and have little say on the Chinese government’s policies affecting Hong Kong. Puerto Ricans have full US citizen rights if they move to the continental US (which as citizens they can do without any immigration check, with planes flying to and from domestic terminals), but when they reside in Puerto Rico, they have no right to vote in US elections, don’t receive the same government benefits, and receive, as we saw in the wake of the disastrous 2017 hurricane season, far less in government aid than any state similarly requiring disaster relief would get.

In both places, things have gone reasonably smoothly when the economy has been humming, but when times get harder, the heavy hand of the “mother country” — whether in Beijing or Washington — and the incompetence, corruption and basic political weakness of the local leadership leads to frustration and anger among the public.

In Hong Kong, we’re seeing this frustration and anger boiling over in the incredibly huge demonstrations — as many as two million in a city of eight million people recently —calling for everything from the resignation of Chief Executive Lam to outright independence from China. The spark that ignited this-almost two month-long series of massive demonstrations and marches was an annual commemoration of the 1989 June 4 violent crackdown by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on student and worker demonstrators in Beijing, which morphed into broad protest against a proposed new law introduced by Lam that would for the first time allow for the extradition of people wanted for prosecution in China, including for political “crimes.”

Puerto Rico for its part was devastated by two back-to-back disasters over the past decade, one economic and one natural. The first, an entirely man-made disaster, was the elimination by Congress of a federal tax incentive program under which Puerto Rico was able to lure US companies to shift production facilities there and escape federal taxation. Ending that tax break caused many big employers to flee the Puerto Rico and that gutted the island’s tax revenues. That forced Puerto’s “commonwealth” government and many of the island’s municipal governments to turn to massive borrowing, in order to make of for the lost revenue, and then to find themselves unable to continue making the payments when interest rates rose. As revenues vanished, so did many professionals from doctors to teachers, who sought work on the mainland US. Then came a natural disaster: a one-two punch by two huge, record hurricanes, first Irma which struck San Juan and the north coast, and then Maria, a Category 5 storm which hit the island head-on, crossing the entire island and causing massive destruction, over 3000 deaths and leaving roads and electricity out for months across the entire island. To make matters worse, Congress, instead of bailing out Puerto Rico, or allowing the island and its cities to declare bankruptcy to escape their debts, passed a law creating a Financial Control Board, composed primarily of Wall Street bankers, whose goal has been keeping the lenders whole.

In Hong Kong’s case, China, during its negotiations with the British as their lease on most of the territory of Hong Kong was due to expire in 1997, promised to respect the degree of democracy won through long struggle by Hong Kong’s residents of the British colony, and even to expand it, leading eventually to a Legislative Council (Legco) fully elected on the basis of popular vote and to an elected, not appointed Chief Executive Officer, subject to “conditions” in Hong Kong. China also promised “50 Years No Change” in Hong Kong’s laws and freedoms. But those promises, especially for increased electoral democracy, were quickly broken in the years that followed.

A key reason for China’s backtracking was that Britain, violating an agreement on pre-handover developments negotiated with China in 1984, once it got close to being ousted in 1997, moved to make the 70-member Legco members all fully elected by universal suffrage in 1995, two years before China would assume sovereignty over the territory, so. (This was after decades of the UK’s bitterly opposing democratization in its colony.)

China responded to this deliberate move by Britain to hand over to it a fully democratic fait accompli, by terminating the whole elected body on the night of the handover on July 1, 1997, replacing it by a group hand-picked by Beijing to serve for the first two years of the new SAR. Gradually, China has subsequently allowed an increasing number of elected members to the council, with half the members (35) now elected by universal suffrage from geographic districts. But the other 35 still represent so-called “functional constituencies,” as was the case under the British before 1995. These functional constituencies are industrial, commercial, banking, legal and other occupational groups, including labor, which elect representatives from their leadership or membership. In the end, the current system allows Beijing to maintaining a working majority of supporters of its policies on the Legco. The territory’s chief executive, who was supposed to eventually be elected by citizens of Hong Kong by this point, remains appointed by Beijing, Lam being the fourth and current holder of the top position.

In Puerto Rico, the US military ruled the island with an iron fist for almost two decades following its capture from Spain. Under military rule, lands were stolen from local jibaro peasants and consolidated into giant sugar fincas, Spanish was banned from public schools, and independence activists were brutally repressed. Then, under pressure from activists who had been pressing for more local control since having the dream of independence from Spain ripped away following the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was gradually permitted some local governance powers. In 1952, the colony of Puerto Rico was granted “local autonomy” and the right to elect its legislature and its governor (this was largely a propaganda gesture motivated by the Cold War, as the US tried to avoid being cast as a “colonial power” in an era of national liberation movements around the globe). But Puerto Rico has remained, like Hong Kong half a world away, with only a crippled and pinched “autonomy.” Just as Hong Kong’s government is severely constrained in what it can do by what Beijing will allow, in Puerto Rico, Congress has the absolute authority to override any law passed by the island legislature, the federal court system oversees and can overrule local courts, and an appeals court, The Court of Appeals of the First Circuit, in Boston(!) handles any appeals of Puerto Rican federal district court rulings. And of course the US Supreme Court has the final say over Puerto Rican court rulings.

The similarities between Hong Kong and Puerto Rico apply also to their future. While some in Hong Kong may long for it to become an independent city state like Singapore, this is really a pipe-dream. China will never allow the wealthy port city of Hong Kong to go its own way, nor could any foreign power ever succeed in wresting it away from China.

Likewise Puerto Rico seems doomed to remain a US colony. Efforts at rebellion in the past were quickly crushed by the US military which has a heavy presence on the island. And while there is strong emotional support for at least cultural independence, and also strong support for going in the other direction and seeking to become the 51st state, neither of those options seems likely either. Independence, which has fared poorly in plebiscites, the idea faces a hard slog, since so many people on the island manage to survive because of the meager welfare benefits — especially Food Stamp assistance — which they receive from the US. Many also have family spread out across the US, and would not want to be cut off from them by independence. At the same time, statehood, which would produce a new state with five new members of the US House of Representatives, and two US Senators, all or most of whom would be reliably Democratic, would be a hard sell in a Congress where Republicans and Democrats are fairly close in number. (The US Constitution doesn’t specify any procedure for admitting a new state but by tradition it has required a majority vote by the local population, and a petition to be admitted as a state, and then a majority vote by both houses of Congress.)

Republicans would likely oppose Puerto Rican statehood or could include a measure insisting that the official language of the new state be English –a “kill-switch” rider which would cause huge dissension on the Island, probably preventing a majority popular vote for statehood.

We can certainly expect more unrest in both places as time goes by, as the frustrated citizens of both Hong Kong and Puerto Rico endure the continued humiliation of colonial or quasi-colonial status under the thumb of remote central governments a thousand miles away. The astonishing numbers we see on the street in both places prove that these are not “manufactured” events being manipulated by outside agents. The sentiments of protesters in both places are real and heartfelt, even if outsiders could be found attempting to influence them.

And despite the almost insurmountable odds against independence for either place, I will say this: As someone who lived and worked in Hong Kong for five years, including 1997, the year of the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty (and in China for one and a half years), and as someone who also knows a good deal about Puerto Rico’s struggle against Spanish and US colonialism, and about the passion of this small island’s people for their language, culture, and history, I can confidently predict that the struggle for political agency and for at least cultural (and linguistic) independence in both places will continue, and perhaps even grow in strength.

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Combatting Surveillance Capitalism: An Orwellian Lesson in History from Ford to Google

Close scrutinization of the daily lives of workers has always played an important role in enabling capitalists to squeeze greater profits from their workforce. The relentless surveillance of employees, whether it be on the factory floor or in the workers’ homes, was something that the anti-Semitic industrialist, Henry Ford, was proud to have honed to a fine managerial art. This history is well-established. In fact, the website of the Henry Ford Museum boasts that a central part of the Ford Motor Company’s much vaunted $5 per day profit-sharing plan, which was rolled out in 1914, was that Ford “opened up the most intimate and personal details of employee’s personal, family, and financial life to investigators from the [Ford] Sociological Department.”

History, however, demonstrates that surveillance (in this case of a paternalistic variety) ultimately failed in its objective to pacify the workforce. Ford workers responded by becoming better organised. This in turn led the Ford managers to create something called the Service Department – a body which effectively served as an anti-union paramilitary arm of the Ford Motor Company. Hence especially during the mighty upsurge of trade union militancy in the 1930s, highly developed forms of espionage and violence were systematically deployed by Ford’s private army against any workers who strived to democratise their workplaces and their lives. The battle between workers and bosses continues to this day.

Professor Shoshana Zuboff’s shocking book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier (Profile Books, 2019) brings this history of corporate surveillance up-to-date, providing page after page of horrifying revelations concerning the depravity of contemporary capitalism. Most of all, however, her book codifies the dangerous shortcomings of petty-bourgeois intellectuals who rail only against selected aspects of working-class repression. So, while Zuboff’s hefty 700-page tome does shed light upon recent developments in how surveillance technologies are deployed against the working-class, she fails to provide a clear context for how these methods became institutionalised and, ultimately, how they are intrinsically linked to capitalism itself.

In charting the recent evolution of what she calls surveillance capitalism, Zuboff correctly focuses her anger upon the rise of corporate giants like Google and Facebook and their “ruthless expropriation” of behavioural surplus value which they scrape together from our online activities “for the purposes of shaping individual behaviour”. She explains:

“At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.” (p.9)

Yet Zuboff revives Marx’s theories not because she likes to engage with Marxist ideas, but precisely because she is adamant that the problem is not capitalism per se, but just its latest “rogue” iteration — surveillance capitalism. In grounding her fairy tale that “Capitalism evolves in response to the needs of people in a time and place” when it has only ever been responsive to the needs of capitalists — she repeatedly refers to the benign leadership of Henry Ford (1863-1947) as demonstrating how far things have gone wrong since his glory days of managerial insight. Zuboff would do well to read some books about Ford’s toxic legacy.

According to Zuboff’s belief in good and bad forms of capitalism, its latest form, surveillance capitalism, evokes for her the bad old times of the late-nineteenth-century when robber barons “defended their new capitalism from democracy at any cost.” She even furnishes a definition of industrial capitalism (the bad type that she says was dominated by robber barons) as a system “driven by its own inner logic of accumulation” and “profit maximization”. How this differs from other forms of capitalism is unclear.

To give her some credit, Zuboff appreciates that major reforms under capitalism were won by ordinary workers. Thus, she explains how significant reforms were attained when “we once withdrew agreement to the antisocial and antidemocratic practices of raw industrial capitalism, righting the balance of power between employers and workers by recognizing workers’ rights to collective bargaining and outlawing child labor, hazardous working conditions, excessive hours, and so on.”

But contrary to Zuboff’s claims, the move away from a bad industrial capitalism to an enlightened Ford-era form of capitalism is a myth, especially when we consider capitalism’s never-ceasing depredations against workers on a global scale. Instead the international battle for workers’ rights has always been a work in progress; a battle that has been opposed with great ferocity by all capitalists, whether their methods be the blunt ones wielded by early robber barons, or those anti-democratic techniques that were sharpened by the likes of Ford and further honed today by Google and Facebook today. Zuboff’s petty-bourgeois rendering of politics consequently leads to her mistaken conclusion that to secure a more democratic future workers must simply limit their demands for a nicer capitalism. However, reverting back to the days of Henry Ford style capitalism will, we can be sure, provide no meaningful solutions for the working-class.

What is clear is that the priorities of surveillance capitalists, like all capitalists before them, stand in direct contradiction to issues of equality or democracy; making them more democratic is not a solution, what is necessary is abolishing their entire system of oppression! Here, even Zuboff furnishes an intriguing example of how capitalist greed always trumps human need, when she highlights how Facebook has enabled advertisers to reach out to demographic audiences who were interested in questions like “how to burn Jews”. Similarly, she explains how Google has let advertisers actively seek profits from racists who have previously searched online for terms like “evil jew” and “Jewish control of banks.”

These reactionary and now profitable themes for Facebook and Google were of course first popularised in the 1920s by Henry Ford, a certain historical irony that Zuboff remains blissfully ignorant of. Yet in the same way that Zuboff ignores Ford’s commitment to both the growth of the Nazi state and to the corporate surveillance of employees, she shows the same errant disregard for the long and sordid history of state surveillance of the American public, activities which were at every step carried out in close cooperation with corporate elites.

Flowing from her petty-bourgeois perspective, Zuboff states that it was only after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that the relationship between corporations, like Google, and public intelligence agencies truly blossomed in “the heat of emergency”. For example, she introduces the “CIA-funded” venture capitalist firm, In-Q-Tel, as “an agency experiment” that was established in 1999, before explaining that it was only in the wake of 9/11 that it “became a critical source of new capabilities and relationships, including with Google.” Zuboff refers to this relationship as surveillance exceptionalism, and thereby neglects the entire history of collaboration that existed between the state and corporate powerbrokers.

Another way in which Zuboff undertakes her own surveillance subterfuge becomes evident during her discussion of the findings of the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, a historic investigation that was launched in 1971 by Senator Sam Ervin. Herein Zuboff concludes that as a result of this investigation “US society mobilized to resist, regulate, and control the means of behavioural modification” as an “extension of state power.” What remains unmentioned by Zuboff is that this investigation did not just limit itself to examining the dangers of behavioural modification techniques, but specifically scrutinized the government’s abuse of computer surveillance, especially when directed against progressive activists and trade unionists.

In a significant oversight she fails to mention that the first day of the Senate hearings was titled “Federal Data Banks, Computers, and the Bill of Rights.” This section of the investigation unearthed the sprawling edifice of the military’s computerized domestic surveillance apparatus – which, by 1970, had already amassed 25 million files on individuals. Furthermore, contrary to Zuboff’s wrong conclusion about the positive outcome of the Senate investigation, proof that this gigantic surveillance system was actually resisted and regulated has never eventuated, and the only Bill that was introduced to bring an end to domestic military surveillance never made it past its first reading. (It is also notable that this mammoth surveillance controversy was quickly dropped off the corporate news agenda when Senator Ervin went on to serve as the chair of the Senate Watergate Committee.)

Zuboff then engages in another colossal feat of misdirection when instead of discussing Senator Ervin’s surveillance investigations she focuses on only the more lurid tales of the CIA’s behaviour modification experiments. These dark experiments included the CIA’s secretive MKULTRA project which they dedicated to exploring the realms of “mind control.” In addition to this omission, Zuboff then draws attention to the “1975 Senate investigation of covert CIA Foreign and Military Intelligence operations” which is better known as the Church Committee but does not discuss their relevant findings. This fleeting mention is again revealing, because although Watergate’s revelations are well-known in public mythology, the findings of the Church Committee were far more devastating in documenting the anti-democratic surveillance operations of the American government as exemplified by those activities undertaken through the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO).

In choosing to ignore the surveillance-related findings of the Church Committee, Zuboff thereby colludes with the state in shielding her readers from comprehending the long and repressive history of the US government — engaging in what can only be interpreted as a process of historical “rendition” (a term she coins in her own book). Discussing these historic precedents would have been particularly relevant to contextualising Zuboff’s later revelation that American law enforcement agencies are now buying-in the services of private surveillance companies: using companies like Geofeedia which “specializes in detailed location tracking of activists and protestors, such as Greenpeace members or union organizers, and the computation of individualized ‘threat scores’ using data drawn from social media.”

It must be emphasized that during the 1960s and 1970s, surveillance twinned with violent state repression of activists — including assassinations (like that of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton) — were a vital tool in the ruling-classes heightened class war against democracy. While unwilling to locate such repression in her own exposition on the rise of surveillance capitalism, Zuboff does at least acknowledge how the neoliberal creed that evolved during this era, which she says fed into the consolidation of surveillance capitalism, had “been prosecuted in the name of defeating the supposed collectivist hazards of ‘too much democracy.’” Here, on this central issue of capitalist classes aversion to “too much democracy” Zuboff refers to the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 report “The Crisis of Democracy” an anti-democratic publication whose creation was born from the elitist orientation of this think-tank’s creators and financiers, of which one leading funder was the Ford Foundation.

Harking back to Henry Ford, the Ford Foundation, which was established in 1936 by Ford’s son, is a famous ruling class philanthropic endeavour which has maintained a long history of promoting imperialist projects in coordination with the CIA, while working domestically to undermine and co-opt working-class movements for progressive social change. For example, the Foundation played a key role in attempts to deradicalize the civil rights movement, a theme that continues to the present through its ongoing interventions into the Black Lives Matter movement. So, it makes sense that in addition to funding elite governance projects like the Trilateral Commission, the Ford Foundation has been at the forefront of creating and funding the type of liberal non-profit organizations which have been active in exposing some of the excesses of state and corporate-sponsored surveillance. In this regard the most significant project that Ford has helped fund in recent years has been The Tor Project, an anti-surveillance initiative whose other most generous benefactor to date has been the US government.

The Tor Project is well-known among revolutionary socialists as providing a simple means of encrypting internal communications, thereby safeguarding organizations and activists from the prying eyes of surveillance capitalists and state intelligence agencies who would otherwise log all their phone calls, emails, and much more beside. As an aside, the US government’s own interest in Tor — whose initial protocols were developed by the military — owes to Tor’s ability to cloak the own online activities of their own intelligence agents. Although critically the government recognises that such agents are only able to hide on the dark web if enough ordinary members of the public are also using Tor. Either way, the fact that Tor has its roots within the American intelligence community does not negate its utility to activists. But this history does illustrate the urgent need for dissidents and privacy activists to find ways of funding and coordinating their anti-surveillance efforts in ways that are delinked from elite funding networks.

Zuboff, of course not being overly concerned by any political need for secrecy — and why would she — is for the most part dismissive of the protective value of anti-surveillance technologies, and so they barely get a mention in her book. Encryption and other privacy tools, she writes, “may be effective in discrete situations, but they leave the opposing facts intact, acknowledging their persistence and thus paradoxically contributing to their legitimacy.” Although arguably she should have introduced her readers to Tor, her statement is correct. As what Zuboff is highlighting are the major shortcomings of the well-funded activism of petty-bourgeois anti-surveillance activists, many of whom ultimately end up lending legitimacy to the surveillance state.

Part and parcel of these legitimation problems can be seen by the uncritical relationships (funding and otherwise) that many privacy activists maintain with not just capitalist philanthropists (like Ford) but also with the surveillance capitalists themselves. Thus Zuboff explains that on the one hand corporations like Google are happy to fund far-right lobbying groups that are better associated with the Koch brothers, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (as outlined in the 2012 report “The Googlization of the Far Right”), while pointing out, that at the same time…

“…a list of Google Policy Fellows for 2014 included individuals from a range of non-profit organizations whom one would expect to be leading the fight against the corporation’s concentrations of information and power, including the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Future of Privacy Forum, the National Consumers League, the Citizen Lab, and the Associacion por los Derechos Civiles.” (p.126)

Finally, in concluding her book, Zuboff dwells upon the words of George Orwell, quoting from his scathing review of James Burnham’s 1940 bestseller, The Managerial Revolution. This book was famously written by Burnham, a former Trotskyist leader turned-reactionary, and as Orwell surmised, the authors rejection of socialist politics led him to celebrate a future where the new managerial rulers “will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands.”

Continuing a trend that impregnates her own book, Zuboff is apparently happy to ignore the relevant context for Burnham’s sharp political reorientation that led him to pen his best-selling ode to elitism. So in her hands Orwell’s essay is simply used to illustrate the truism that conservative intellectuals who are “in the worship of power” (like Burnham) are unwilling and incapable of envisaging future scenarios that depart from existing trends. This leads her to conclude that “Burnham’s cowardice is a cautionary tale” and that “Orwell’s courage demands that we refuse to cede the future to illegitimate power.”

This is true. But there are other important lessons that should be gleaned from Orwell’s critical review that are not highlighted by in Zuboff’s conclusion. The first is that Orwell’s courage owed everything to his socialist faith in the ability of the working-class to fight to overcome all forms of authoritarianism. The second is that Burnham’s embrace of the ruling-class’ anti-democratic ideas (including Nazism and Stalinism) made him exactly the type of intellectual who would go on to help develop America’s developing surveillance state, which he did through his work with the CIA. And one final lesson or cautionary tale that can be learnt from Burnham, which Zuboff clearly has not learned, relates to the dangers that come from the embrace of petty-bourgeois politics as an alternative to revolutionary socialism… themes that are developed in respect to Burnham and his elitist fellow travellers in Leon Trotsky’s important book In Defence of Marxism.

 

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A Fateful Tug of War

Tug-of-war is an innocent sport and, if there’s no heat wave such as now in the USA and Europe, it can be fun for all the players. But in world politics it may be a dangerous game, especially if played like some old Vikings did – across a fiery pit awaiting the losers.

On the global scale, tug-of-war is currently played with drones and surveillance planes provocatively skirting the borders of Iran in the east and Venezuela in the west, with missile-bearing carriers closely standing by. (Perhaps now in the Far East as well?). Most often, behind them, rubbing their hands – though never soiling them with tug ropes or triggers – is a team of war-hungry politicians and armament kings. The seizure of oil tankers, first by the UK and then, obviously in reprisal, by Iran, makes them hopeful but most decent people fearful! This tug-of-war, however, is not really between countries. It is between that team, itching for confrontation, new bombing missions and new vassals, and all those working for peace. Which side will win out? Or can the thin rope tear?

Germany has long been divided by this test of strength. On one side were those who, ever since Konrad Adenauer launched the Federal German Republic, huddled with war hawks in the Pentagon and NATO strategy rooms. Called “Atlanticists” because of their transoceanic connections, they found a slick advocate in Ursula von der Leyen, since 2014 the Minister of Defense. On July 16th she took a big jump upwards. Her last-day oratory may have done the trick; down-playing her military obsession, she evoked stirring emotions about climate protection, women’s equality, European togetherness and “Western democratic values”. After a painfully narrow secret ballot victory, by just nine votes, 383 to 374, with 23 abstentions, she became president of the European Commission, the powerful cabinet of the European Union, with 28 seats heading 28 departments covering all aspects of European life, one seat to a country (but dropping to 27 if Britain leaves as planned in October). She will become the boss of more than 30,000 employees who can determine life patterns for about 500 million Europeans. It is hard to imagine that she has forgotten her major goal, a strong, German-dominated European army, a muscular junior partner of the US-dominated NATO and aiming in the same eastward direction. A good church-goer might well cry out: “God protect us!”

This meant giving up her job as German defense minister. But her immediate successor, a major surprise, was Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the woman who replaced Angela Merkel as chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Any hopes for less belligerency were quickly dispersed. AKK, as her long name is shortened (but having zero resemblance with that US name abbreviator, AOC), immediately demanded a further increase in armament spending, up to the multibillion-euro, 2 % budget level demanded of all NATO members. Less martial in appearance than her predecessor, she follows the same line. Gun maker Heckler & Koch (the Mauser offspring), KruppThyssen, super-modern U-boat maker for decades, and Kraus-Maffei-Wegmann, Hitler’s best tank-maker and now exporter of deadly-clanking “Leopards”, could all enjoy untroubled sleep and more billions.

Or could they? The Greens, it is true, now stronger than ever, retain few traces of original pacific traditions and have moved so far in their hatred for Putin and their yen for trouble with Russia that their criticism has not been against an increase in military financing but rather a demand for a “more efficient, less wasteful” build-up.

But the Social Democrats, still in the government coalition and with a record of support for NATO build-ups, were now fighting for survival as a major party. The result: unusually forthright statements like those of Karl Lauterbach, a candidate for party leadership, who warned “against an armament policy conforming to the wishes of Donald Trump”. Some of their delegates voted against von der Leyen, have no love for her successor, AKK, and even echoed the LINKE (Left), who continued to oppose armaments, weapon exports and all military embroilments such as in Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq or Syria.

Last week, at the annual German-Russian discussion forum in Bonn, the “Petersburg Dialogue”, both foreign ministers attended for the first time since the Ukraine crisis. Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat, after meeting with Sergei Lavrov, spoke of positive signals in the Ukraine and hoped that the truce soon to begin there “will also be respected, that there will be a continuing ceasefire and that we will have further progress in implementing the Minsk Agreement” (to end the conflict). Despite all differences, such as with economic sanctions, Maas said that world political solutions are hard to find without “the constructive participation of Russia”. Could this mean a change in tone?

Indeed, varied interests offered glimpses of hope on the “Peace” side in the tug-of-war. Many manufacturers, not so involved with military gear, retained interest in the huge Russian market. So did many in the important fruit and vegetable sector. Both suffered greatly from the sanctions imposed by the USA and the European Union, and tried to get around them. They had no desire to convert roads and rails for eastward-bound tanks and artillery nor to send German battalions with inflammatory missions to maneuvers along Russia’s borders. Many hoped for Russian gas from the Baltic undersea pipeline.

And such tendencies, aside from their motivation, conformed with the thoughts and wishes of very many Germans, most probably a majority, who resisted the “hate-Putin, hate-Russia“ stress in the mass media, which recalled very similar words and caricatures in the media of eighty years earlier.

Much as in the USA, these feelings did not lead to the big peace demonstrations of earlier decades. Main attention and activity was rather turned to environmental questions and opposing fascist threats and violence against people of other colors, clothes or churches. But such issues, also based on internationalism, certainly had their place in the tug-of-war and were close to similar movements in the USA, where the fight against fascism by that courageous young “Squad” of congresswomen has been greatly admired in progressive German circles.

This fight took a dramatic turn on June 2nd when Walter Lübcke, 65, a courageous official in the city of Kassel, a Christian Democrat, was shot dead in front of his home. Four years earlier he had replied angrily to vicious anti-foreigner catcalls in the audience: Whoever did not like the values upon which this country was founded was free to leave it whenever he wanted. The murderer, a dyed-in-the-wool fascist, had been waiting to kill Lübcke ever since, stimulated by fascist blogs, one of them that of a prominent adherent of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

A huge wave of mourning and anger followed. At a state government session even in conservative Bavaria, all present stood in silent mourning for Lübcke – except one AfD delegate who remained demonstratively in his seat. He has been making excuses ever since.

Widespread rejection of the far right increased substantially. A small local pro-Nazi party in Lübcke’s town, Kassel, called for a rally favoring “justice” for the murderer and announced that 500 would attend. In a giant response by all political parties (except the AfD), the churches, unions and every kind of organization, the city filled up on July 20th. 10,000 anti-fascists were everywhere, many with anti-Nazi T-shirts, flags, banners and noise enough to drown out the downcast-looking neo-Nazis, about 100 of them who, carefully protected by the police, held what they called a meeting and departed in disgrace.

This was a genuine triumph in the tug-of-war. More such triumphs are urgently needed in the next five weeks. The East German states of Saxony and Brandenburg vote on September 1st, Thuringia on October 27th, and up till now the polls give the AfD a strong possibility of winning first place. Broad alliances of three or even four parties may be necessary to form state governments without them.

Thus far any coalition with the AfD has been ruled out by all the others. But some Christian Democrats (CDU) in Saxony, who have headed every government there since German unification, have long been playing an under-the-table game with the AfD best described as “footsie”. The feared far-right gains, resembling those in Hungary, France, Italy and often based on lynch-type mobs such as those in the USA, are truly frightening. And although the AfD, seeking popularity, has publicly advocated detente with Russia, it demands, less publicly, an ever bigger army with ever more modern weapons. To oppose its policy of hatred toward people of color and all those on the left, and its tolerance of violence, thousands from all over Germany are expected in Saxony’s capital Dresden on August 24th to help local groups and warn voters of the threatening dangers. As in so many parts of today’s world, every form of commitment helps. The international tug-of-war demands ever more hands to prevent a fall into a fiery pit of bloody fascism and annihilating war.

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My First Cousin Odysseus

When I first started reading to my young daughter Corinna in the late 1970s, I said to her, “I am the first cousin of Odysseus.”

Homer and Odysseus

This was more than bragging to a little girl. I love Homer and Odysseus. They have been my heroes. They speak to me and they speak to all humans about the meaning and purposes of life and civilization. They are relevant today as much as they were in the age of Pericles and Alexander the Great.

Reading the Iliad and the Odyssey is reading Greek history at its most intimate: brutal wars, victories over enemies, triumph of free speech, democracy and reason — and terrible weaknesses.

Odysseus was the peasant, the soldier, the hero, the faithful and unfaithful husband, the Greek who loved his home more than anything in the world, including becoming a god.

More than 3,000 years separate me from Odysseus. He was born during the Bronze Age in Ithaca, a small island in the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy. He was the son of King Laertes and Queen Anticleia, husband of Penelope, and father of Telemachos.

Metis

Homer was the teacher of Hellas. He was above all the singer of tales, the aoidos who sang the heroic adventures of Odysseus’ return journey to Ithaca. Homer says metis explains Odysseus, that is to say, this was a man of intelligence, cunning, craftsmanship, strategic thinking and eloquence.

The best of men had the gifts of metis, but the original model of genius was Metis, goddess of intelligence and mother of goddess Athena.

I am Odysseus

While in Phaiakia (another Ionian island with the name of Kerkyra), and the last stop before reaching Ithaca, King Alcinous feasted and treated Odysseus like a royal guest. He secretly admired Odysseus, hoping he would fall in love with his beautiful daughter Nausicaa. However, Odysseus was determined to return home to Penelope.

Odysseus introduced himself to Alcinous and other distinguished Phaiakians like the proud hero he was:

“I am Odysseus, son of King Laertes of Ithaca. Men the world over are talking about my cunning. My fame is even reaching the heavens” (The Odyssey, Book 9, 19-20).

I was born in the twentieth century in the island of Cephalonia that, in the Bronze Age, was part of the kingdom of Laertes / Odysseus. Only the gods know whether or not I am related to Odysseus. There’s only a tenuous cultural connection tying me to Odysseus. And that slender thread goes through place, time, and history.

The name Odysseus means a man of pain, one who gives woe. He did suffer. But he also enjoyed himself. All his companions, soldiers he brought with him to Troy, perished. He lived with goddess Kirke for a year. He lived with another goddess, Kalypso, for seven years. He made love to these goddesses every day. Kirke was the daughter of the Sun god Helios and Kalypso was the daughter of the Titan god Atlas.

These goddesses loved him. Kalypso offered him immortality, if only he would agree to stay with her. But even in this blissful life, he remembered Penelope waiting for him and he gently refused.

Athena and Odysseus

A third goddess, Athena, loved him and protected him. Once the Phaiakians brought Odysseus to Ithaca, Athena appeared to him as a beautiful blued-eyed tall woman skilled in weaving. They talked and Athena convinced Odysseus that he was in Ithaca. Yet Odysseus, not recognizing Athena, and as usual suspicious, he disguised himself. She cut him off. She said to Odysseus: “You failed to recognize that I am Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus. I have stood by you forever, even making friends for you among the Phaiakians.” She started teasing him: that they had so much in common, being lovers of craftsmanship, diplomacy, elusiveness, and cunning.

“Here we are in Ithaca” Athena tells Odysseus, “the shrewdest minds in the cosmos. You are by far the best man on Earth in plotting strategies and spinning yarns, and, for my part, I am equally famous for wisdom and cunning among the gods” (13.281-302).

Odysseus won his fame and honors in the Trojan War. He was at its center. He was a great soldier and a general. He was the connecting link between the fighting kings, Agamemnon and Achilles. He soothed angry Achilles. And he invented the Wooden Horse that became the undoing of Troy. The grateful army honored him with the weapons of dead Achilles.

Return to Ithaca: Odyssey

Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, Homer’s Odyssey, is the passion of all humans to return home.

The very act of leaving home is a heroic act that leaves a vacuum in the soul. And when you reach that desired destination, the images of those you left behind, the aroma and taste of the grapes you ate from your father’s vines, are with you, reawakening all the loves that are no longer with you.

I went through this agony for years and decades, only to find myself gradually an alien in my own Ithaca in Cephalonia. No goddesses slept with me or advised me. I was alone in my fights against Cyclops Polyphemos, one-eyed monster son of Poseidon, the Sirens, bird-like beautiful female musicians, Skyla and Charybdis, water monsters of annihilation, and the Laestrygonian cannibals.

It would not make sense to use these names (mostly of monsters) in my American experience. The United States, the latest European nation in north America, is, like Europe, a clone of the original Greek vision of civilization.

I recognized lots of Greek achievements in America: in architecture, science and technology, even in politics. But like the Peloponnesian War shook Hellas to its foundations, the rush to get rich has been convulsing American society, with no end in sight: slaughtering the indigenous Americans, importing millions of black slaves, looting the land, creating genocidal weapons, and poisoning the environment.

The monsters I slew, not in my dreams, but in government offices. The cannibals could not tolerate infractions in their tastes or dogmas.

I cannot say my travel in America, decades long with many adventures, is over or that I have had a happy day of return to my Ithaca.

But that does not matter.

Ithaca

In a poem entitled “Ithaca,” the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy said in early twentieth century, it’s the journey that matters, the longer the better. He is right. He urged us to keep thinking of Ithaca. But don’t be disappointed that Ithaca has very little to give you. Instead, be satisfied by the riches of learning and experience you gained in your travels.

I learned a few things. I am grateful for the wisdom I gained from my experience: Odysseus remains my first cousin. He and Homer guided me in my life-long journey that made me who I am.

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Genocide from Kissinger to Trump

Donald Trump’s statement earlier this week that he could win the US war in Afghanistan but he doesn’t want to kill ten million Afghans was both revealing and appalling. Like so many other of Trump’s statements, his remark revealed the genocidal nature of US foreign policy. It is a policy that considers human lives as part of some greater equation that results in the supreme dominance of the US economic and military system. When Henry Kissinger was working for Richard Nixon, it was called realpolitik. In that instance, it meant the deaths of more than a million Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and US citizens. Jimmy Carter and Zbignew Brzezinski shared Ronald Reagan’s view that the struggle against the Soviet Union rationalized the killing. George Bush the Elder and Bill Clinton saw it as a battle against a terrorist phenomenon. Baby George Bush and Barack Obama organized their mass murder as part of a global war on terror—the GWOT. The terror they were fighting was caused by the very foreign policy the GWOT is part of. Trump may not want to kill ten million Afghans, but he seems to be okay with killing them in smaller numbers like Obama was.

The statement by Trump is appalling only in that most US residents pretend that their lifestyles are not dependent on the murder of other people who live in other countries. It becomes even more appalling when one realizes that most of those same US residents will eventually accept (if hey haven’t already) this price in blood. Many even revel in it. That’s where we are at this moment in history.

Trump’s statement took me back to a different time. I was a ten-year-old boy living on a small military installation in Peshawar, Pakistan. Peshawar is a major city in the area of Pakistan and Afghanistan where the Pashtun people live. It is the Pashtun who form the largest part of the opposition to the current US occupation in Afghanistan. They are an ancient people who refuse to be subjugated. Anyway, my father had a job that involved gathering data from a radar system eavesdropping on China and the Soviet Union. He rarely talked about his work. It was all classified and I had yet to become curious about what his role in the imperial military was. So, I never asked him any questions about his work. We talked about baseball, household chores, school and life in general.

He had a coworker who lived off base. In fact, he lived in a hotel in downtown Peshawar that had been built during the recently ended British colonial period. Low fans hung from the ceiling, horse or mule-drawn tonga carts lined up like taxis in front of the hotel, servers brought us pine nuts and mango drinks while this man I’ll call Mr. S. and I waited for a driver who took us on different excursions. Many of those trips were to villages in the region. Upon arriving at a particular village, Mr. S. would introduce me to a couple of the boys who always greeted us. I would go off to play soccer, tag or some other game with the boys. I could speak a form of pidgin’ Pashtu. Still, we communicated mostly via gestures and some universal understanding. Mr. S. would head to one of the one-story adobe buildings with a group of men from the village. Sometimes, officers of the Pakistani military accompanied them. When I asked Mr. S. what they talked about, he said something about politics and agreements. I’m certain now that he was up to some kind of subterfuge I now oppose, but those were more innocent days. At the end of the day, we usually feasted on grilled chicken, grilled goat, fruits, tea and delicious cakes. There were no forks or spoons. However, we used hunting knives to cut the meat from the bone. After eating, we would wash our hands and faces with water drawn from the well. There were no women or girls present at these meals. I do recall talking to some girls in their own compound; we laughed and giggled through a hole in the wall. Then, the girls were called away and we scattered before we got into trouble. I wonder what happened to all those kids. I wonder how many of them were killed by bombing raids and drones as part of the ongoing US intervention. I wonder if Donald Trump, Barack Obama, the Bush presidents, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter even considered the humanity of those they let their henchmen kill. I wonder how many US residents do.

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Coming Out in Rural America

I went to graduate school thinking I was straight. Then I realized I wasn’t.

I came out of the closet almost two years ago, right after deciding to do my graduate research in Montana. Suddenly, I had an extra consideration on my plate: What would it be like to be gay in Montana? What will it be like to be gay wherever else my career takes me?

On the whole, I love it here. Montana feels like a pretty accepting place, but it’s a mixed bag. During Pride week, the governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, flew the LGBTQ Pride flag above the state capitol for the first time in the state’s history. Republicans immediately criticized him for it.

I’m used to living among people who unequivocally accept LGBTQ people. I came out to my parents via email the same week I figured it out myself because it’s no big deal in our family. Others aren’t as lucky; some people’s families still disown them.

I assumed that you come out of the closet and then you’re out. It’s not true. It’s a continual process of deciding who needs to know, and how and when to tell them.

In Montana, the first challenge was housing. I looked into renting a room from a straight couple who told me they thought gay people were fine as long as they kept it to themselves. The implication was that being gay is icky. I did not come out to them or rent from them.

Then I looked into another rental with a woman and her female “roommate.” When I arrived to meet the “roommate,” we immediately recognized each other as gay, and then came out to each other. They are a couple, and I rented a room from them for the summer.

At my research site, I don’t bring up my sexuality. My research participants are, on the whole, absolutely fantastic people whom I both like and admire. But what if even a few people wouldn’t participate in my study if they knew? I’d rather not take chances.

Then I met someone special. She’s my first girlfriend. We’ve only been together a few weeks, and who knows how long this will last, but I’m in my late 30s and it is the first time in my life I’ve felt this way.

I watched all of my peers pair off as teens, and then get married in their 20s and 30s, while I remained alone. Couplehood was a slice of life reserved for other people, not me. Finally, it’s my turn too. I’m so happy I could sing.

What I didn’t expect, after being out and proud for nearly two years, is how my first gay relationship would shove me partially back in the closet.

Opinions are split among queer friends here, but many feel it’s not safe to look like a couple in public. Most people are accepting, but it only takes one person to beat you up. And I know people who have faced violence for being gay here.

It’s odd walking around town with my first girlfriend, keeping our hands off each other and pretending we’re just friends while straight couples around us can freely kiss. Then I go to work at my research site and pretend the most exciting thing in my life isn’t happening, in case that would harm my research.

Again, most people are good, and kind, and accepting, but most isn’t all. Our work for acceptance is not done until queer people can live their lives as freely and easily as straight people do. We’re still not there yet.

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The Empty Gaze of Mike Pence

When people are not seen as human beings, but as a “storage” problem, the final solution becomes the “logical” solution. Are we going to let that happen?

In the 2001 movie, The Conspiracy, Nazi officials gather at a stately home to discuss what to do about the Jewish population, which for the most part has been removed from German society and are filling up concentration camps, work camps, and ghettos. They are becoming, as one of the characters terrifyingly puts it, a “storage” problem. The movie is based on the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where the “final solution” of mass genocide was discussed and decided upon.

Building the Wall, a play by Robert Schenkkan written around the 2016 election, takes place in the near future after Donald Trump is fictionally ousted from the presidency and imprisoned. It explores the intellectual and moral acrobatics of a private prison guard, himself narrating from the point of his own imprisonment, who found himself in charge of a large sports complex where thousands of immigrants were being held. There was an outbreak of cholera, which became a catalyst for his version of a “final solution.”

In both of these scripts, the logic of fascism takes over. The viewer is both sickened and seduced. At the end of two hours spent inside the heads of people who see whole groups of human beings as vermin, criminals, invaders, enemies, and mere bodies taking up space, you see that for them, there is no solution but genocide.

Which brings us to July 12th, 2019, when Mike Pence visited one of the regime’s concentration camps at the border. So much has happened since then that you might not remember what you saw. It’s become old news, quickly disappearing under the layers of ongoing atrocities in year three of the Trump era.

But it should persist in your memory because it’s so singularly telling and chilling. We see an enormous crowd of men crammed behind chain-link fencing, begging for help. They’re telling us that they’re not even being allowed to clean themselves, but we don’t actually need them saying it — the masks the camp guards are wearing for the stench are right there for us to see, and the reporters on scene are experiencing it firsthand.

The Vice President stands with arms crossed, flanked by silent GOP luminaries all dressed in navy blazers and khakis to match his own. A uniformed man gestures around with a tour guide’s nonchalant air, explaining about the placement of different watchtowers monitoring for anyone “who gets rowdy.” But the most memorable thing in the video is what’s in Mike Pence’s eyes, or rather what’s not in them. His blank gaze travels over this mass of suffering men pleading to him without registering the faintest response. They might as well be livestock, or even empty air. There’s no sign that he even perceives human beings to be there. Because to him, they aren’t.

Upon coming out, he declares that the conditions in the camps are “providing care every American would be proud of.” Which clinches it: he didn’t see what we just saw. He didn’t see anything at all.

Afterward, amid deafening silence from conservatives, we hear a lot of mealy-mouthed pieties from well-meaning commentators on the left about how Trump has committed a strategic mistake letting Pence visit these camps. These videos are such a bad look. History won’t be kind. Goodness, his administration is so dumb they don’t even realize this — otherwise, why would they ever officially release the video?

They have it exactly backwards. The Trump/Pence regime definitely wants everyone to see this video. Because for their purposes, it’s excellent publicity. It causes terror in the regime’s targets. It induces a sense of despair in the opposition that they have reason to hope will make us numb and inert. For their base, it’s gratifying cruelty porn, exactly what they voted Trump in for.

And no matter what the viewer’s attitude, it indelibly creates a certain image of Central American people (and more broadly, all brown and black people): this is their proper habitat, literally penned up as a single mass, a herd of animals, filthy, untouchable. Things no respectable person will want to be near. Things that must be kept away from the uncontaminated.

They know that image has power in the subconscious, even when it’s rejected by the conscious mind. Don’t think it can’t affect your own thinking — regardless of your color or your politics — especially as such propaganda increases in volume and intensity. These are known techniques for getting a population to accept unconscionable depravities. Tested and time-honored. They are used because they work.

This is not a movie, or a play. We can’t get up at the end and know that either all of that is history or some hypothetical warning. Right now, a fascist regime is creating what they see as a “storage” problem, for which there will only be one solution if we don’t stop them. Don’t say that can’t happen here. Why did the Nazis study Jim Crow laws?

And don’t say that there’s no way to stop it but to wait until 2020, or that it’s too late to stop it now. Neither of those statements is true. Just since 2016, in many parts of the world, we’ve seen how to remove tyrannical regimes. It’s been done in South Korea, Armenia, Algeria, Sudan, and as we speak in Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, and Honduras. This is the plan and strategy of Refuse Fascism – sustained, unrelenting, non-violent mass protest by millions of people that does not quit until hated regime is gone.

The longer we wait to stand for our values and use our power, the more, as a society, we allow the logic of genocide to take hold. We must not go down that road. Very soon, the moment to launch the kind of sustained protests that can actually knock a fascist regime off the tracks has to be seized. Refuse Fascism is preparing for that moment. Join us. The future is calling.

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Northern Ireland and Brexit: Where History and Fantasy Collide

Almost 100 years on since the formation of the Northern Irish state, it is still the Irish question that is bedeviling politics in the United Kingdom. Brexit is not about Europe. It is about the Tories and increasingly about Ireland. First the Tories. Ironically the term for members of the Conservative and Unionist Party, to give it its full name, derives from an Irish word for robber and brigand.

History has a wicked sense of humour. The daggers plunged into the backs of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Teresa May that ended their prime ministerships all had Tory fingerprints. But relations with the European Union was the motive. It’s no joke, now time to send in the clown. Boris Johnson is a student of history and the new resident of No.10 Downing Street has one trick to pull off; get a Halloween Brexit. Failure to deliver will condemn the Tories to electoral oblivion. The nightmare on Downing Street.

But it is Northern Ireland where fantasy and reality meet, where history collides with the present. There are those on the Tory benches in the House of Commons who keep on insisting that modern technology means there is no need for a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, in actual fact, post-Brexit, the border between the European Union and Britain. They have no name for the company that can do this because there is none. The technology does not exist. Few mentioned the border during the EU referendum in Britain in 2016. It must be stated that no political leader in Ireland or Britain or Northern Ireland wants a hard border. But the uninterrupted passage of either goods or people from Ireland to Northern Ireland, from the EU to the UK, cannot be regulated by technology alone. Northern Ireland is the blind sport of the Tory party. One simple question will prove this. Ask any Tory politician how many counties are in Ulster? It’s a simple question. Most Tory politicians will probably say six. After all, isn’t Northern Ireland often referred to as the Six Counties. That answer however would be wrong. There are nine counties in Ulster, six make up the political entity that is Northern Ireland. All nine are, geographically, in northern Ireland.

Brexit will success or fail not on trade deals but the 500km-long border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

This crooked line has bedeviled British politics before. Back in 1920 it was it was not the European Union but another union, the United Kingdom that was being divided. London introduced the border (in 1921)  as a temporary partition after the Irish rebelled. Catholic Ireland was breaking away from rule by London. The Protestant-dominated Northeast wanted to remain. So it was agreed that there would be a short-term boundary until a permanent solution was found. This was only meant to last, initially, a matter of about six months. In the time of the Troubles, between 1968 and 1998, the border became one of the most heavily policed in the world.

Then the Belfast Agreement of 1998 (the Good Friday Agreement), a remarkable political achievement, saw the need for such a border vanish, as did the watchtowers and army patrols. With peace, the border more or less vanished. Ireland and the UK were in the EU. No violence, no need for a border.

For 20 years, people have come and gone freely. They cross into and out of Northern Ireland through approximately 300 major and minor crossings, though there are no checkpoints. The border is crossed 105 million times every year on an island with a population of about 6.6 million.

Brexit. And this where it borders on the criminal. A hard border, involving three jurisdictions, Ireland, the EU and Britain, could be restored in a place where the border has caused untold suffering.

An EU land frontier, separating the UK on the one side and a 27-member bloc on the other.

The “backstop” could solve this. This would allow a seamless border on the island of Ireland in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal.

But it would not be a complete break by the UK from the EU and Northern Ireland, especially, would remain largely in the EU and would not need to impose border controls on goods coming from Ireland.

But then of course the Irish would get the blame for Brexit failing.

And many Tories still would not know how many counties there are in Ulster.

 

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Trump and Supporters: Paranoiacs Following Lee Atwater’s Racist Strategy

“He has been glorified as a hero and obeyed as a ruler, but fundamentally he is always the same. His most fantastic triumphs have taken place in our own time, among people who set great store by the idea of humanity. He is not yet extinct, nor will he ever be until we have the strength to see him clearly, whatever disguise he assumes and whatever his halo of glory. The survivor is mankind’s worst evil, its curse and perhaps its doom. Is it possible to escape him, even now at this last moment?”

– Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

“[White] America’s conscience is bankrupt. She lost all conscience a long time ago. Uncle Sam has no conscience. They don’t know what morals are. They don’t try and eliminate an evil because it’s evil, or because it’s illegal, or because it’s immoral; they eliminate it only when it threatens their existence. So you’re wasting your time appealing to the moral conscience of a bankrupt man like Uncle Sam. If he had a conscience, he’d straighten this thing out with no more pressure being put upon him…And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built, and the only way it’s going to be built—is with extreme methods. And I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”

– Malcolm X, Oxford Union Debate, 1964

Elias Canettii argues in his book that the most dangerous individual holding power is someone who views him/herself as a Survivor, or someone who can survive at the expense of others. Canetti notes that the Survivor, with access to nuclear weapons, can obliterate a hefty chunk of mankind. The President of the United States, as Commander in Chief, has the option to use those weapons presumably only under the most dire of circumstances. President Donald Trump’s proximity to the nuclear weapons trigger has been noted with trepidation by non-military observers from the beginning of his presidency and that matter is always lurking in the background, particularly as the US modernizes its Nuclear Triad. But the checks and balances in the use of the Nuclear Triad can’t be discounted as it is likely that military commanders would refuse to carry out Trump’s orders to use nukes even in spite of revised doctrine appearing to make it easier to do so.

The bigger problem, according to Canetti, is this: “Today, the survivor is himself afraid. He has always been afraid, but with his vast new potentialities his fear has grown too, until it is almost unendurable…The most unquestioned and therefore the most dangerous thing he does is to give commands.”

Trump’s world is a paranoid one. His apologists and supporters are loons. How else to describe those that refuse to condemn, even approve, racist presidential behavior. Trump and his disciples act as if they have survived some horrific mentally debilitating event; or indeed, expect one in the form of a color shift in America’s complexion.

They fear the majority of the popular American electorate, they fear immigrants, they fear people of color, they fear LGBT’s, they fear government funded social programs, they fear the questioning of their beliefs, and they fear non-Christians—and that’s just for starters.

Didn’t evolution weed these viruses out decades ago?

Trump and his disciples view themselves as a persecuted minority and that’s dangerous because they really believe they are. The statistics, the demographics, show that Whites make up the largest chunk of the American population with Hispanics second at 18.3 percent and Blacks at 13.4 percent. Trump’s people are horrified at the prospect that America will turn a light tinge of brown, which it inevitably will, by the 2050s and beyond.

Making Amends with Corporation and the Financial Sector

Trump is Canetti’s Survivor, a hustler. He managed to gaming the legal and financial system to stay afloat, always getting rescued/supported by “his kind” for boneheaded business decisions and now for slashing US federal spending and regulations that protect the American public turning the US federal government into a bigger playground for corporations, businesses and interest groups (something corporations welcome with glee).

The Washington Post reported in 2016 that Trump declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy six times; four in the 1990s and two in the 2000s. In 2004, Trump’s Hotel and Casinos Resorts was $1.8 billion in debt and couldn’t meet its obligations.

So why do the corporate powerhouses of America stick with Trump even though he is a real estate swindler, racist and psychopath?

That’s simple, he is a repaying the corporate/financial world back for robbing them of billions years ago by giving them trillions now. He, and his Republican/Democrat apologists in the US Congress, slashed corporate/business tax rates, and they are now pillaging federal programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) for budget cuts or elimination, ostensibly to save American taxpayers some money. Trump wants to drop 3.1 million people from SNAP.

It is the same story at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the publication Mother Jones, “On Wednesday [July 18], the United States Environmental Protection Agency doubled down on one of the most controversial environmental deregulation moves of the Trump presidency…the EPA reaffirmed its 2017 decision to reject a proposal from the agency’s own scientists to ban an insecticide called chlorpyrifos that farmers use on a wide variety of crops, including corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees, Brussels sprouts, cranberries, broccoli, and cauliflower.”

And why would Trump be interested in chlorpyrifos that has been shown to be detrimental to children’s brain development? “Dow AgroSciences’ parent company, Dow Chemical, has also been buttering up Trump. The company contributed $1 million to the president’s inaugural committee…the administration has approved the Dow-Dupont merger, and named several former Dow execs to high posts within the US Department of Agriculture,” Mother Jones reported.

Just so.

Trump’s Supporters: Theory of Evolution Apologizes Profusely

Trump lands uppercuts and left hooks to the American body politic and culture by ignorant Tweets that stoke racial tensions and non-partisanship.

Just how does a racist grifter, who tells four democratic congresswomen—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, Ilhan Omar, D-MN, Ayanna Pressley, D-MA, and Rashida Tlaib, D-MI, to go back to their “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” manage to win the support of millions of Americans and bump up Trump’s poll numbers? Or why did 187 US House members vote not to condemn Trump’s beliefs?

According to Pew Research, polling results for the 2016 election indicate that “Among the much larger group of white voters who had not completed college (44% of all voters), Trump won by more than two-to-one (64% to 28%)…Trump had an advantage among 50-to 64-year-old voters (51% to 45%) and those 65 and older (53% to 44%).”

And it is not just those who have not completed college or even attended college who are party of Trump’s looney bin. Wealthy “smart” Republicans are part of the evolutionary mishap, as well. Republican CEO’s side with Trump because he is helping them increase profit margins, shareholder dividends, and stock buybacks. What’s all the fuss about a President of the United States who is both a racist and pro-business? It is, after all, just another write-off for the books.

According to a paper titled The Politics of CEO’s, “We use Federal Election Commission (FEC) records to put together a comprehensive database of the political contributions made by over 3,500 individuals who served as CEOs of S&P 1500 companies during the period 2000-2017.We find that these political contributions display substantial partisan preferences in support of Republican candidates.To highlight the significance of CEO’s partisan preferences for some corporate decisions, we show that public companies led by Republican CEOs tend to be less transparent to investors with respect to their political spending.”

Senate and House Republicans, morally bankrupt to the core, are marching to the beat of a racist drummer.

Democrats: Remember Your Ugly History

The Democrats don’t get a pass on racial issues. There’s a lot for them to answer for as well.

Writing in The Hill, Burgess Owens notes that, “As a party with a history of pro-slavery, pro-secession, pro-segregation and pro-socialism, the Democratic Party has also been the party that has politically controlled urban black America for over 60 years. Predominantly black communities in many cities today are mired in poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, crime and hopelessness. The Democratic Party has never apologized for its past, nor has it attempted to atone for its present failures.

Instead, it has skillfully used the art of bait-and-switch. Millions of Americans are convinced that somehow in the 1960s there was a wholesale transition of the Democratic Party’s two-centuries-old hatred of black people to the policies of the anti-slavery, anti-secession, anti-segregation and pro-God Republican Party. Only in a vacuum void of common sense, critical-thinking skills and true American history could such logic survive.”

Trump Channels Republican Lee Atwater

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater, known for his brutal, but successful, campaigning for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, commented on flipping the Southern United States from racist Dixiecrats (Democrats) to, well, racist Republicans. Gone were the days of vulgar racist comments by Whites, and in came the days of using coded terms for racist policies.

In an interview with Atwater for a book on Southern party politics in 1981, while employed by the Reagan Administration, Atwater was asked this:

“But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the [George] Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?”

Atwater responded:

“Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying…By 1968 you can’t say…that hurts you. Backfires. You say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than… So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the backbone.”

And the beat goes on 38 years later.

Not All Whites

Many Whites have stood on the ramparts with people of color and other minorities to fight for equal rights and liberties. White judges and politicians have rendered decisions or passed legislation to turn the tide against racism in the USA. I’m not guilty of my Whiteness as I argued in, Dissident Voice, 2015.

I know of no one, young or old, that likes to be pigeon-holed no matter their color, immigrant status, or their ethnic background. No one wins this type of blame game except the racists in Trump’s camp who fan the flames of fear or those who mock the individuality of each human being.

So why are there racists out there in the open, in the White House, Congress, corporations and the voting public? What can be done about it?

I posed that question in 2015. I mean, should I attribute the sins of the world to Whiteness? Or should I conclude that the Species itself and the dominant economic and ruling methodology of Capitalism combine to make the “demon” that Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to and the “system” that Malcolm X wants us all to change: That American system, born largely of the British, Roman and Greek Systems, that relies on absurd contradictions and irony. A system that makes those from NWA and Straight Out of Compton, with all the female bashing lyrics, now part of the One Percent elite of corporate America; or the principals of the George W. Bush Administration clearly guilty of war crimes still cashing in on public office; or the poor and largely Black people that can’t make $500 bail and waste away in jail; or the White miners in West Virginia killed because the mining company ignored safety rules and is found not guilty of negligence on a legal technicality; or the citizens of Detroit City denied, by a lone judge, the right to clean drinking water.

And what should I make of an American society that does not care about corporate surveillance (for profit) and government monitoring of all forms of communication (to maintain security and stability for the corporations to make profits)? Where were the White Rockers, Black Rappers, and Country Music stars when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged on or the beach head for the corporate and government’s invasion of privacy was the home?

They, all of them, were co-opted by a political, economic and cultural system we deny every day but in which we also live, procreate, operate and profit. With all of our complaints, we don’t have a functional alternative to offer. The ballot-box provides no remedy. Presidential and Congressional elections are polluted by money and interests, foreign and domestic, over which voters have no control. Politicians are bought and sold like horses prior to a race.

I don’t think I’m White. I think I am a human being. I don’t know what it is like to be rich and in the top 20 percent of money makers in the USA. I know that I’m color-labeled as White and class-labeled as Middle by the identity and false consciousness hunters that roam the American landscape.

I know I agree with Dave Chappelle, famed comedian with $10 million in the bank, who is labeled as Black and Wealthy. But I’m not a smart guy and I think that he is a human being and really funny guy with great observations of the human condition. I think that way of George Carlin, Chris Rock and the late Robin Williams. According to Chappelle “I support anyone’s right to be who they want to be. My question is: To what extent do I have to participate in your self-image?”

I don’t want to participate in the self-image, the evolutionary mishap, that is President Donald Trump, his apologists and his supporters. I also don’t want to deal with duplicitous Democrats who always seem ready to enable Trump’s foolishness.

It seems to me there is no vocal, turbulent opposition to the madness that permeates the United States of America these days. Who inspires any longer? Who can compromise?

Who will fight?

The post Trump and Supporters: Paranoiacs Following Lee Atwater’s Racist Strategy appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Trump vs. the Squad, or the Fascist Use of Zionism

The strategy is clear. Whether Trump confronts Sleepy Joe, Crazy Bernie, Pocahontas or some other Democratic opponent in the presidential race, he will target the “Squad” of newly elected freshman congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.

Trump has decided to (1) depict them as the real face of the Democratic Party; (2) attack them as socialists and radical leftists; (3) misrepresent their criticisms of Israel as egregious anti-Semitism, and (4) win the 2020 election by posing as the savior who revived the U.S. economy versus the party of people who hate America and Israel.

This strategy combines the racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes that have worked well for Trump so far, with Cold War-style red-baiting, fawning devotion to the Jewish state, and old-fashioned character assassination. “They hate our country,” Trump repeats. Why don’t they leave?

Those of us who grew up in the 60s recall the right-wing slogan, directed against critics of the Vietnam War, “America—love it or leave it!” The simple logic being that people complaining about the country didn’t belong in what should have been a solid landscape of pro-war nationalism. You’d think the stupidity of that slogan, implicitly a call for slavish devotion to the state, would be obvious in 2019. But no, it’s not. Trump has revived it, testing its resonance.

Some take comfort in the fact that Trump has walked back and stated that he did not in fact agree with the infamous chant at his June 19 rally: “Send her back, send her back, send her back!” (He just stood there frowning and nodding in apparent approval for 13 seconds.) This disavowal, they may think, somewhat mitigates the fascist threat. The president is not in fact calling for mass expulsion of dissidents, even Muslims who complain. He is not in fact encouraging the mob to demand the expulsion of an immigrant refugee who became a congresswoman.

Yet Trump stresses the innate goodness of the hateful mob—noting as always its amazing size— expressing its righteous outrage at the Squad members’ statements. Told many were unhappy with the fascistic chant, Trump blamed the victim, retorting: “I’m unhappy with the fact that a Congresswoman can hate our country.” (They started this, not me.)

The president arrogates to himself the right to define what constitutes hate speech. And racist speech, which he denies he’s ever used. What sort of hateful speech does he refer to, when he accuses Omar of anti-Semitism?

In a recent column on Mondoweiss, Philip Weiss lists the four statements for which Ilhan Omar has been faulted with that offense. (Trump implies to his followers that he has “pages and pages” of “vicious” anti-Semitic statements by the four congresswomen, but has been very vague on specifics. He is lying.)

(1) In 2012 while working as a nutritionist in the Minnesota public school system, during the Israeli assault on Gaza that killed over 100 Palestinian civilians, Omar tweeted: Israel “has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

(2) Five weeks after being elected to Congress after journalist Glenn Greenwald expressed puzzlement that Republicans in Congress would want to punish Omar and Tlaib for their criticisms of Israel Omar tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” The Israel Lobby has plenty of money and uses it to promote uncritical support for Israel and to discourage criticism. “Benjamins” refers to $ 100 bills, which bear the image of Benjamin Franklin. It is not an anti-Semitic reference. But Trump has frowningly noted this tweet, adding, “She should never have said that!” implying that he will be using this particular tweet against her so long as it fires up his followers.

(3) Asked to explain the tweet, Omar curtly replied: “AIPAC!” The American Israel Political Affairs Committee is, of course, the most significant group within the Lobby, and helps ensure that Israel receives near-unconditional support from the U.S. Congress. It would be naïve to underestimate its importance. But the Lobby responds to any criticism of itself with accusations of anti-Semitism designed to intimidate.

(4) At a “progressive town hall” in Washington, D.C. in February, Omar said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” While awkwardly expressed, her point is apparently that the Israel Lobby promotes the idea that the U.S. and Israel are so closely allied and so bound together through “common values” and religious tradition that loyalty to the one cannot conflict with loyalty to the other, and that indeed to be a good American you need to support Israel. This would be an accurate depiction of the problem. Surely Trump is conflating love of Israel with Americanism as he seeks to isolate and vilify the Squad.

He wants to promote patriotic and pro-Israel outrage, posturing as both the flag-kissing nationalist and best friend of Netanyahu while wages a Hermann Göring-like campaign against his sharpest critics. As the New York Times keeps reminding us, there is no end to his lies.

In fact, none of these four brief statements by Omar attacks or disparages Jews as Jews. But she has hit nerves. Nancy Pelosi berated her for promoting “anti-Semitic tropes”—a fancy way of saying that anytime you associate support of Israel with money, you reduce the dream of the Holocaust victims for a homeland, and the Christian Zionist’s dream of the Rapture, to mere material considerations, feeding bad stereotypes. It’s just politically unwise to mention money in the same sentence as Israel. Trump and Pelosi unite in their acceptance of Zionist ideological hegemony within U.S. politics. In their view, Israel was either created out of existential necessity, or in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy; in any case, its legitimacy must never be questioned.

No U.S. politician is allowed to frankly note that Israel was created through racist violence in 1948. No one stands up in Congress reminding its members that 711,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland, in part through naked terrorism, to make way for the Jewish state formed mainly by recent European settlers claiming—with U.S. Evangelicals’ support—that “God gave this land to me.” A serious critique of Zionism is not possible within the constricted U.S. political universe. The exploitation of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment is on the other hand infinitely possible, as Trump knows full well.

“They hate our country, and they hate Israel.” Trump is probably going to combine these two allegations, crudely courting Jewish support, throughout the campaign. Thus the growing U.S. fascist trend supersedes earlier anti-Semitic fascisms in upholding the expansionist Jewish settler-state (that occupies the West Bank and East Jerusalem and maintains the open-air concentration camp of Gaza); its anti-Semitism consists of support for the vicious oppression of the Palestinian Arabs at the hands of their fellow (Jewish) Semites.

It makes good sense for Trump to wage an electoral campaign based on the vilification of the opposing party as radical left, socialist and anti-Semitic, its key standard-bearers angry, foul-mouthed young women of color who hate their country and Israel. It makes sense to make, for your largely moronic racist base, the terms of the battle simple: us versus them.

Real Americans, happy smiling and free, versus the angry people who don’t belong here. With all the clear logic of a 10-year-old, Trump suggests that they love it or leave it.

If Omar can accuse Israel of “evil doings” just because it killed 100 Palestinians, and suggest that money influences Congressional votes on Israel, and that dual nationals may feel dual loyalties, she arouses Trump’s keen moral indignation. He adopts the Evangelical preacher’s soaring prophetic oratorical mode, and the simplistic distinction between good and evil, and actually declares (to Omar) that “You can’t talk that way about our country—not while I’m president!”

So what is he gonna do about it? Trump will use attacks on her and the other three to further normalize the political culture of schoolyard bullying that he has brought to Washington, integrating both fascistic elements and abject deference to Israel, proving there’s no inherent contradiction between the two. And he will retain a base that will seize the next chance to chant “Send her back! Send her back!” so that Trump can smile, pause, shake his head, say, no, no….then let it go on longer, saying, okay, no, no…

Trump will now walk a fine line between encouraging and harnessing the racist energies of his worst adherents. He loves to rile them up, to hear them go crazy. To think you can do that just by demanding the death penalty for the Central Park Five, or questioning Obama’s birthplace, or advocating a Muslim ban, or building a wall and abusing children and separating families to discourage Hispanic immigration, or attacking elected Congresswomen because they are not white and they don’t love U.S. imperialism and criticize Israel!

Trump must rejoice in a world in which the pure stupidities he spews receive the support that must exceed his expectations. I suspect that he tests the waters, wondering: how fascist can I go and make this still work for me? The occasional call from Steve Bannon might help. The present course is to attribute hatred of the country to any who criticize it for what it is (a capitalist, imperialist country with a deeply-rooted sexist and racist culture that must be changed) and/or criticize Israel for what it is (a settler-state built on Palestinian suffering). And then to sit back and watch how society responds.

“You can’t talk that way about our country,” says Trump, “not while I’m president!” And who will rid me of this meddlesome monk? Trump is positively inciting violence against those who do not embrace his MAGA vision, deliberately exacerbating contradictions. The effort could backfire and blow up in his face; this country’s youth are generally progressive, hate Trump and are very open to interpretation that is administration is fascistic. But his steady 40% support rate, never faltering whatever he does, is frightening—in part because it is so pro-Israel, and Israel under the leadership of Binyamin Netanyahu is hell-bent on sparking a war between the U.S. and Iran.

The post Trump vs. the Squad, or the Fascist Use of Zionism appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The BLM’s “Targeted Grazing” Ruse

Recently Nevada Bureau of Land Management (BLM) State  Director Jon Raby suggested that the agency will try “targeted grazing” among other methods to reduce wildfires in the sagebrush ecosystem. Raby says the BLM is implementing this action “because of the threat of annual invasive grasses, specifically cheatgrass, play in altering fire regime conditions that intensify wildland fire frequency, duration, and size.”

The BLM’s response to cheatgrass has an analogy in the Hans Christian Anderson story about the Emperor new clothes. Only a small child is willing to say the obvious—the Emperor is naked.

We have a similar situation with regards to cheatgrass spread and livestock grazing. No one in the BLM is willing to admit the obvious– that livestock grazing is largely responsible for the spread of cheatgrass.

The reason the BLM is closed mouth about the relationship between cheatgrass spread and livestock is political, not due a lack of scientific information.

Throughout the arid West, biological soil crusts (BSC) consisting of moss, algae, lichens, and cyanobacteria cover the soil between native bunchgrasses. These crusts are very fragile and easily broken up by trampling from livestock hooves. As livestock destroy soil crusts, cheatgrass seeds can establish on the bare soil.

A second way that livestock promotes cheatgrass is by selectively grazing native bunchgrasses. Native bunchgrasses in the Great Basin evolved without large herds of grazing animals like bison.  Therefore, they have few adaptations for resisting grazing pressure and are slow to recover from grazing.  By selectively and preferentially grazing the native grasses, livestock gives cheatgrass a competitive advantage.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology looked at 75 Great Basin sites invaded by cheatgrass found that greater grazing intensity promoted the alien’s spread. As the researchers concluded: “Evidence suggests abundant bunchgrasses limit invasions by limiting the size and connectivity of gaps between vegetation, and BSCs (biological soil crusts) appear to limit invasions within gaps.”

The study goes on to conclude: “Results also suggest that cattle grazing reduces invasion resistance by decreasing bunchgrass abundance, shifting bunchgrass composition, and thereby increasing connectivity of gaps between perennial plants while trampling further reduces resistance by reducing BSC.”

However, you won’t hear anything about this and other studies from the BLM. Just as the EPA is not allowed to mention climate change, the BLM is not permitted to say anything that could be conceived as negative about ranching.

Another ruse used by the BLM is “targeted grazing” is the idea that eliminating grasses, can reduce the spread of wildfires.

Again, the BLM’s Emperor has no clothes. What is never mentioned is that climate/weather conditions primarily drive large wildfires. Extreme fire weather with low humidity, high temperatures, extended drought, and most importantly, high winds are the primary driver of large blazes. Under such conditions, windblown embers easily cross any “fuel break” created by targeted grazing.

In a widely cited paper,  Targeted Grazing in Southern Arizona: Using Cattle to Reduce Fine Fuel Loads, the researchers noted in the next to last paragraph: Although it (targeted grazing)  is a promising tool for altering fire behavior, targeted grazing will be most effective in grass communities under moderate weather conditions.” In other words, livestock grazing doesn’t work under extreme fire weather conditions.

Why is this important? Because all the large fires that we seek to control or suppress only occur under extreme fire weather conditions. In other words, the very fires that all this manipulation, livestock grazing, and so forth are supposed to control are ineffective under extreme fire weather conditions.

This conclusion was recently reiterated in a recent paper on fuel breaks with the title: “The ecological uncertainty of wildfire fuel breaks: examples from the sagebrush steppe.” In that paper, the authors warn that fuel breaks are of unproven effectiveness in the face of extreme fire weather.

The BLM is hamstrung by livestock interests when it comes to protecting our natural resources. The Emperor has no clothes, but you won’t hear it from the agency.

The post The BLM’s “Targeted Grazing” Ruse appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Shaping the News: The World’s Not the Way it Seems

In Othello, the villainous Iago manipulatively shapes the way people perceive events, ensuring that everyone sees the world, not as it is, but as it suits Iago’s purposes. America is Iago. Shakespeare would shudder.

White House perception shapers and the U.S. media shape the way the public perceives the world by severing events from the causal context that explains and makes sense of them. The event can then be manipulatively woven into the public perception in whatever way suits U.S. purposes, amputated from any context that makes sense of it and allows the public to see the world as it is.

In recent weeks, perception shapers have manipulated the public to see events in Brazil and Iran, not as they are, but as they suit U.S. foreign policy.

Brazil
Regime change in Brazil demanded two steps: the removal of President Dilma Rouseff and the arrest of former President Lula da Silva.

The first was made to look like proper parliamentary procedure. Dilma was charged with “violating fiscal laws by using loans from public banks to cover budget shortfalls, which artificially enhanced the budget surplus” and removed from office. But that accounting manipulation is not uncommon; according to the Brazil’s federal prosecutor, it is also not a crime. The perception shapers not only knew it wasn’t a crime, they knew it was a coup.

How did they know? Because the coup plotters told them so. In a post-coup speech in front of members of multinational corporations and the U.S. policy establishment in New York on September 22, 2016, newly installed president Michel Temer brazenly boasted of his successful coup. Temer clearly told his American audience that elected President Dilma Rousseff was not removed from power for accounting manipulations as the official charge stated. She was – the new, unelected president admitted – removed because of her refusal to implement a right wing economic plan that was inconsistent with the economic platform on which Brazilians elected her.

Rousseff was not on board. So, she was thrown overboard. In the words of Temer’s confession:

“And many months ago, while I was still vice president, we released a document named ‘A Bridge to the Future’ because we knew it would be impossible for the government to continue on that course. We suggested that the government should adopt the theses presented in that document called ‘A Bridge to the Future.’ But, as that did not work out, the plan wasn’t adopted and a process was established which culminated with me being installed as president of the republic.”

And that wasn’t even news because a transcript of a phone call revealed “a national pact” to remove Dilma and install Temer as president. The transcript identifies the opposition, the military and the Supreme Court as coup conspirators.

America’s back yard was escaping: it had to be once again annexed. So, the public wasn’t given the context, and the coup was perceived as proper parliamentary procedure.

But the removal of Dilma Rouseff wasn’t enough because waiting in the wings was her even more popular mentor, former President Lula da Silva. And Lula was poised to win the next election. So, Lula had to go.

America could not allow the return of Lula. He had cooperated with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in his life and eulogized him in his death. Lula had been a powerful force in the gravitational shift that had temporarily pulled Latin America out of the American orbit. His return was impossible, so the script had to be changed. So, Lula was arrested, convicted and barred from running for president in the 2018 election. Lulu was banished to prison over a bribe in which the construction company OAS offered him an apartment in exchange for inflated contracts. But no evidence was ever provided that Lulu accepted the bribe or ever stayed in or rented out the apartment.

In the past few weeks, more details have emerged on what context the perception shapers amputated. It is now clear why it never bothered anyone that there was no evidence against Lula: because the prosecutors did not need evidence. The perception shapers forgot to tell the public that Lula’s prosecutors were conspiring with his judge to frame him with the bribery charges. The Intercept reports that judge and prosecutors illegally collaborated to build the case against Lula, despite serious doubts about the evidence, and to prevent his party from winning the 2018 presidential election.

Absent this historical context, the removal of Dilma and the arrest of Lula look like legal and parliamentary maneuvers. But suturing them back together reveals a coup.

Iran
Iran recently stunned the States by shooting down a $130 million U.S. Global Hawk surveillance drone. U.S. officials called the incident “an unprovoked attack.” But that label requires two acts of historical amputation: one to call it unprovoked and the other to call it an attack.

To paint America as innocent and feign shock at Iran’s unprovoked attack, the recent past—not to mention a longer past going back to the 1953 coup—needs to be erased: the shooting down of the drone needs to be amputated from its historical context.

America has press Iranians down under the weight of unprecedented unilateral sanctions. Adding the word “economic” to the word “attack” doesn’t make it any less of an attack, and it may well constitute an internationally prohibited act of aggression. Iran’s economy is suffering, and its people are being killed.

Just as adding the word “economic” to the word “attack” doesn’t make it any less of an attack, neither does adding the word “cyber.” But the U.S. has admitted to cyber attacks on Iran. The Stuxnet virus infected Iran’s centrifuges and sent them spinning wildly out of control before playing back previously recorded tapes of normal operations which plant operators watched unsuspectingly while the centrifuges literally tore themselves apart. Stuxnet seems to have wiped out about 20% of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Such an attack on Iranian territory is surely no less an act of war because the weapon used is a cyber weapon.

And Stuxnet, it turns out, was only the beginning. The U.S. also ordered sophisticated attacks on the computers that run Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. A virus much larger than Stuxnet, known as Flame, attacked Iranian computers. This virus maps and monitors the system of Iranian computers and sends back intelligence that is used to prepare for cyber war campaigns like the one undertaken by Stuxnet. Officials have now confirmed that Flame is one part of a joint project of America’s CIA and NSA and Israel’s secret military unit 8200. A NATO study said that Stuxnet qualified as an “illegal act of force.” So much for unprovoked.

Economic warfare, cyber warfare and assassinations too. Since 2010, there have been at least three assassinations and one attempted assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Two senior officials in the Obama administration revealed to NBC news that the assassinations were carried out by the MEK. They also confirm that the MEK was being financed, armed and trained by the Israeli Mossad and that the assassinations were carried out with the awareness of the United States. The State, too, has secretly trained and supported the MEK.

And there is yet one more kind of provocation. In The Iran Agenda Today, Reese Erlich discusses America’s long history of supporting dissident groups and even of sponsoring terrorist attacks inside Iran. He and Seymour Hersh both say that the U.S. funded and supported Kurdish guerillas.

Of course the public will perceive an event as unprovoked if the perception shapers’ narrative begins after the provocations.

The Iranian attack isn’t unprovoked. It also isn’t an attack. Iran says it was a defence. They say they were not attacking but defending because they shot down the drone only after it violated Iranian airspace. The U.S. says the drone was in international airspace. But Iran has displayed drone wreckage at a press conference that they claim proves their case. And the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council says that the Russian military has intelligence showing that the U.S. drone was inside Iranian air space when it was shot down.

In the most detailed account of the events leading up to the shooting down of the drone—events that were virtually entirely severed from the perception shapers’ account—Vijay Prashad reattaches the amputated prior context. In fact, the U.S. had been flying surveillance aircraft along the Iranian coastline, testing Iranian radars. Not one, but two aircraft violated Iranian airspace: the often-reported unmanned drone and a manned P-8 spy plane. After Iran air command radioed U.S. forces to report the airspace violation, the P-8 withdrew, but the drone did not. It was only after Iran’s airspace had been violated, they had warned the U.S. and the drone had refused to leave that Iran shot down the drone. In a personal correspondence, Prashad told me that his source for this account of the context was two Gulf state diplomats. Other sources have also reported that there was a second manned aircraft and that, far from attacking, Iran showed restraint by not shooting down the P-8 airplane and the thirty-five people on board.

With the context reattached, the attack was a defence. But the subsequent American cyber attack on computers that control Iran’s rocket and missile launchers, like the previous Stuxnet and Flame cyber attacks, was not a defence, but an attack.

It is only with the amputation of the relevant historical context that Iran’s shooting down of an American drone can be shaped to appear as “an unprovoked attack.” Suturing the event and the context back together reveals, not only provocation, but defensive action.

The post Shaping the News: The World’s Not the Way it Seems appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Feeding 7.7 billion

When I was born in 1932, the world had 2 billion people. Today, the global population has swelled to 7.7 billion – soon to quadruple in a single lifetime.

How can the planet feed the mushrooming manswarm? Here are some thoughts:

I grew up in a meager farming region of West Virginia. We had no electricity. Small-town families had gaslights, and everyone else used kerosene lamps.

Our valley was mostly a string of dirt farms, horse-operated like in medieval times. My boyhood was during World War II, when most men had gone to combat. My aging uncle ran his farm with two mismatched horses and a crew of granddaughters, plus a scrawny pubescent nephew, me.

We milked cows by hand, plowed and mowed by team, found Indian arrowheads in corn rows, cut creekbank weeds to feed pigs, killed copperhead snakes, straightened bent nails to save money – long days of manual work. It seemed like slavery. Other family farms along the valley were little different.

As soon as I graduated from a little country high school (13 in my senior class), I fled to urban life and a newspaper job. In decades after the war, when I returned home, I found most of those old farms abandoned, overgrown in thickets. I guess parents died and children went to city jobs, as I did.

(When back-to-the-land urbanites came to rural West Virginia farms in the 1960s, I told them they were rushing toward the life I had spurned. Many of them didn’t last long at hoeing and shoveling.)

Most food production shifted away from skimpy family farms to big commercial plantations capable of much greater output. But even those huge farms couldn’t keep pace with the soaring human population.

In the 1960s, alarm spread that the manswarm was exceeding the food supply, and famines were likely. Stanford professor Paul Erlich wrote a 1968 book, The Population Bomb, warning that mass starvation seemed certain in the 1970s. Church groups held public discussions of the impending crisis. Erlich wrote:

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over…. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

But, out of the spotlight, Norman Bourlag had unleashed the Green Revolution in Mexico, Pakistan and India, using high-yield crops and heavy fertilization. Massive food increases resulted. His technique spread around the world. Bourlag got the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. He was credited with saving a billion lives.

Yet the population upsurge didn’t stop. Before he died in 2009, Bourlag said his Green Revolution had peaked and couldn’t keep up with the worsening need.

So, what’s the future regarding hunger? I’m an ardent believer in science. I hope that genetic engineering will make breakthrough after breakthrough, producing ever-better plants and animals to feed humans.

A technique called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) snips a plant’s own DNA as needed – rather than inserting bits of foreign DNA as in past gene-splicing. The revised genome duplicates itself endlessly as new generations of improved crops ensue. National Geographic says it has potential to “help feed the world.”

Here’s hoping that gene science spawns a second Green Revolution and keeps humanity thriving.

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The Quiet One: Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones Phones In

“Wherever we went, we were antagonized by the media. We were always put down as saying we had long hair, we were dirty, we smelled, we wore our grubby, grubby clothes –And they never talked about the music until much later.”

Rock musician Bill Wyman, most famously the bass guitarist rolling with the Stones for three decades, is on the line from London to talk about: all those years he’s been known as “the reluctant rock star”; his working-class roots as the son of a bricklayer; and a new film about his life as a founding member of the band.

PRAIRIE: Why did you want to tell the story of your life in a movie, The Quiet One, and why at this point in your life?

BILL WYMAN: Well over the years, many people have approached me to do a documentary of my life for TV or something, you know, and I’ve had such a varied life and a very unusual life compared with other sort of rock musicians from the 60s, because I lived earlier. I lived through wartime as a child and had some horrendous times there, and did my military service that others didn’t do because they were too young. I’ve had so much happen in my life. I just thought it’d be more interesting to do a film rather than a documentary for TV, and luckily I found some people that were equally interested.

PRAIRIE: And what do you think about the title of the film The Quiet One as a description of who you are–or not?

BILL WYMAN: I’ve always been mentioned as that. In fact, I was looking at an article from 1964 in England just yesterday, and this is not a joke, this is actually gospel truth, and it said, “Bill why are you known as The Quiet One?” It’s in so many articles and documentaries and things that always called me The Quiet One. And they would just say why don’t you ever speak, and I said, because no one ever asked me a question!

When we used to do press conferences, hundreds of them in every country in the world, you know, you’d sit there and they’d direct questions at Mick, and Mick’d say let someone else talk–and they’d direct it to Keith or Brian in the early days. And me and Charlie used to sit up the end and have a cup of tea and talk about where we’re going on holiday, you know, the football scores or something, you know, because we were never questioned! And so, I think it’s a perfect title really because I’m known as that. Although I wasn’t a loud bass player either. I mean John Entwistle of The Who always said to me if you play bass properly, you have to make their ears bleed! I didn’t play — I didn’t play like that. I played very quiet, subdued, so, I’m The Quiet One.

PRAIRIE: You said at one point in the film, “It was us against the world.” What do you mean by that?

BILL WYMAN: Well, wherever we went we were antagonized by the media, the newspapers, the TV, the radio. We were victimized really, we would always be put down as saying we had long hair, we were dirty, we smelled, we wore our grubby clothes, and none of it was truthful, you know, but they always had to gossip. They never talked about the music until much later.

We had to fight that battle in England at the beginning, then when we went to France, went to Germany, went to Holland, and Scandinavia, Australia, America, Canada. Wherever we went, we had to go through that that battle to kind of get the music across and not the image. We didn’t do the image as an image. That’s just the way we were, that’s the way we just wanted to be. It wasn’t planned or organized. You just did it.

PRAIRIE: And what can you say about your encounter with Ray Charles, his impact on you and what he meant to you?

BILL WYMAN: Oh, well, I always thought he was the greatest ever of everybody. My favorite song is “Georgia on My Mind,” you know, of songs I’ve ever heard. And I have many, many, great music idols from Fats Waller to Louis Armstrong to Elvis to The Beatles to Chuck Berry, you can go on, Muddy Waters–but Ray Charles just stands out so far ahead of everybody. He meant something really special to me.

And when I was able to see him a few times live, I just saw audiences in tears when he was singing, and it really impressed me. And then to meet him, to finally meet him, you know, after a concert and sit and talk to him for half an hour, was like a godsend! You know, you’re talking to someone that you idolize, who’s far above you. As I did with the great artist Marc Chagall in the south of France, who I became friends with for the last eight years of his life; I spent a lot of time with him. It was the same thing, he was way above my estimations of where I could possibly be.

PRAIRIE: What was the best thing and the worst thing about being in the Rolling Stones?

BILL WYMAN: Well, you’re opening a can of worms here! [Laughs] Well, the worst thing I think was time-keeping, because I’m OCD, and Charlie and me were always on time, always ready, always straight, always ready to do the business, whereas others weren’t; and so that was incredibly frustrating, year after year after year, day after day. Everybody was always late or never turned up and all that, you know, but that’s the way the band works, you know, and it worked for us. So we had to sort of deal with it in the end in that way.

As far as the best things, I suppose the best things were getting out of a very very poor childhood with no food, no clothes. You know, not having electricity until you were fifteen years old, not having a warm–a warm house until I was in my late twenties, you know, where I had an indoor bathroom and all that. I didn’t have that before that! So they’re all those benefits, being able to pay, the ability to travel, and also to meet all your idols. I became friends with all the tennis stars, sportsmen, movie stars and everything, writers, you know; I become great friends of Jimmy Baldwin, Ken Follet, writers like that, and it was just really special.

PRAIRIE: And why did you decide to leave?

BILL WYMAN: Because it was thirty years and in that thirty years, I always knew there were things I wanted to do. And we all thought and said when it started that it would last two, maybe three years. We used to sit and talk to The Beatles and The Hollies and The Animals and all the other bands. You know, “How long do you think you’ll last?” [And they’d reply] “Maybe two, maybe three, if we’re lucky,”– because bands never lasted longer than that! And I thought, Wow, then I can get on with my archaeology, my photography and all the other things that interest me: ancient cultures, go to special places, travel–and you know, thirty years later, I’m still waiting to do it!

It was time. It was time to–you know, after three amazing tours where we played 120 shows to seven and a quarter million people throughout America, Europe and Japan–I thought time to go, I can now do this stuff. So I said bye-bye to the band who didn’t believe me for two years, refused to believe that I left actually, and in the end accepted it, and we’ve been friends ever since. And I was able to move on and do my archaeology and my photography and my charity sport and open restaurants. And write nine books. All the things I wanted to do, have photo exhibitions. And have my own band, just do it for fun, the fun of it, not commercial reasons.

PRAIRIE: I think we have time for one last question. What would you hope people to understand about you with this film?

BILL WYMAN: Just that I’m a pretty normal human being–except I’m a bit OCD! So I do collect, and I do have to have things in the right order and everything. But I think one of the things that I think people should take on board which I have–and it’s been a godsend to me for all my life, for all my projects–and that is to keep a diary. And I’ve kept a diary since I was a child, and I still do: every morning I sit down and write my diary about the day before and it’s so valuable.

PRAIRIE: Well, thank you so much Bill Wyman for calling into our show, and I have to say you’re certainly not The Quiet One, I’ve discovered during this interview.

BILL WYMAN: Thank you very much. Good talking to you. Bye.

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Stop Wall Street Looting Act: a Letter to Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Hart Senate Office Building, 317
Washington, DC 20510

Re: Stop Wall Street Looting Act

Dear Senator Warren,

I am writing regarding your proposed Stop Wall Street Looting Act which would prevent private funds from imposing all the costs of their risky investments on investors, workers, and communities while profiting from all the gains. Private equity investments are exploding — the net asset value has septupled since 2007 and the value of new private equity deals in 2018 was $1.4 trillion, surpassing the pre-crisis peak.[1]Americans in every community are affected by the industry — today, more than 11 million people are employed by private equity-owned businesses and millions more have their pensions invested in private funds.

Over the last decade, an increasing number of private equity and other private funds have taken controlling interests in hundreds of viable companies, using their assets to secure unsustainable loads of debt, and then stripping them of their wealth, preventing them from investing in the products and people that will allow the companies to thrive in the future. The funds charge investors high fees without providing them visibility or control into their activities and feed a growing market for risky corporate debt that is reaching dangerous levels. Your proposal would address the worst abuses of this business model while preserving productive investments by requiring PE firms to face accountability for their management decisions, limiting their ability to loot the companies they take over, empowering investors to fully understand private equity and other private funds, and protecting workers, customers, and other stakeholders or businesses across the country.

The Leveraged Buyout Model

Leveraged buyouts are a central feature of the private equity business model, but have also been used by hedge funds (ESL and Sears) and real estate investment trusts (Vornado and Toys ‘R Us). In a leveraged buyout, a private equity firm sponsors an investment fund that acquires a target company for its portfolio using capital supplied by investors as the down payment or equity contribution to the deal. It finances the balance of the purchase using large amounts of debt (“leverage”) that the acquired company — not the PE firm or the PE investment fund — is responsible to repay. The PE firm, via the General Partner (a committee of principals in the PE firm), contributes very little to the transaction — typically 2 cents to the private equity fund for every dollar contributed by the Limited Partner investors, which are pension funds, endowments, sovereign wealth funds, and wealthy individuals. For example, if a private fund finances the acquisition of the target company with 50 percent debt, the private equity firm has just 1 percent (.02*.5 = .01) of the purchase price of the business at risk.

Thus, the PE firm is playing with other people’s money while facing little accountability for its decisions. Despite putting up only 2 percent of the equity used to purchase the target company for its PE fund’s portfolio, the PE firm typically collects 20 percent of any profit from the subsequent resale of the company. Debt boosts returns from a successful exit from the company. Meanwhile, through fees and other forms of asset stripping, PE firms drain value from target companies, hurting their workforce, customers, suppliers, and creditors and forcing cuts to research, training, and other important investments that facilitate long-term success for a company and its stakeholders. With little to lose, but much to gain by loading the target company with debt, the PE firm is in a low risk, high return situation. A high debt burden puts the target company, its employees and its creditors at increased risk of bankruptcy.[2]

Your bill would align the incentives of the PE firm and the target company by requiring the PE firms to share liability with the target company for debt. PE funds will still make money from deals that provide investment in target companies that allows them to grow and thrive, but deals that rely on financial engineering and aggressive asset stripping of companies will no longer be viable. This critical reform will end the most abusive practices of the industry while preserving economically valuable transactions.

Financial Leverage Is In Record High Territory

During the 2008–09 financial crisis, highly leveraged firms experienced a disproportionate share of bankruptcies.[3] In March 2013, banking regulators made clear their concerns that debt in excess of 6 times company earnings increased the risk of bankruptcy to unacceptably high levels[4]. Leverage declined during and in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, but as we see in Figure 1, it soon began rising to high levels again. [5]

One way to observe this trajectory is by looking at the median price paid to acquire a company in a given year. Half of the deals for companies are priced above the median price, and half are priced below. As can be seen in Figure 1 (blue section of the bar graph), debt on the median-priced company was 7X EBITDA in 2008, fell to between 3 and 4.6 X EBITDA in 2009 to 2012, reached 7.1X in 2014, and was 6.2X in both 2017 and 2018. It rose to 6.96 in the first quarter of 2019. These are very large amounts of debt loaded onto acquired companies. In 2017 and 2018 median prices paid to acquire them rose to 11.9X and 11.5X EBITDA, respectively. The proportion of deals priced above 10.0X EBITDA in 2018 was 61.4 percent, the highest share ever recorded. Looking forward, a pickup in high-priced transactions is likely as PE funds need to spend down high levels of “dry powder” — commitments from limited partners in the fund that have not yet been deployed.[6]

The leveraged lending market has grown rapidly — 20 percent in 2018 and now stands at $1.2 trillion, double its peak of $600 billion at the time of the financial crisis — which has drawn the attention of financial markets regulators. Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, FDIC Chair Jelena McWilliams, and Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Randal Quarles — like doctors observing a slow-growing cancer — are in ‘watchful waiting’ mode as they try to determine whether this risky debt will grow to create systemic risk. They have acknowledged concerns about the increasing volume of leveraged loans. However, low interest rates in the years since the financial crisis have kept payments on corporate debt as a share of profits from spiking; a 2008-style financial crisis does not appear to be on the horizon.[7]

Still, high leverage poses a threat to target companies, investors and workers, even if it doesn’t yet threaten the financial system. The recent spate of bankruptcies, store closings, and even liquidations in what has been termed the ‘retail apocalypse’ makes it clear that a slowdown in the economy or a change in market dynamics as a result of a trade war or other disruption threatens the viability of highly leveraged firms, financial crisis or not. Private equity firms own only a fraction of U.S. retail chains, for example, but they are behind a disproportionate share—financial news service Debtwire calculates 40 percent[8]—of retail bankruptcies: Toys ‘R Us, Payless Shoes, Gymboree, Claire’s Stores, PetSmart, Radio Shack, Staples, Sports Authority, Shopko, The Limited, Charlotte Russe, Rue 21, Nine West, Aeropostale. PE funds also have major positions in other industries. Between 2011 and 2017, private funds bought more than 200,000 homes, mostly after foreclosure.[9] More than 1,500 small-city daily and weekly newspapers have been purchased by private equity,[10] as has the nation’s second largest nursing home chain.[11] The list goes on.

By aligning the interests of Wall Street investment funds with those of the Main Street businesses that produce and distribute goods and services, your proposal reduces the risky use of financial leverage by private equity and other investment funds and brings the debt of target companies into line with their business requirements. Your proposal also restores risk-retention requirements from the Dodd-Frank Act on corporate debt, requiring securitizers to have skin in the game so that they don’t make dangerous loans and immediately pass the risk on to unknowing investors.

Private Equity’s Extraction of Wealth from Portfolio Companies Disadvantages Workers and Creditors

PE firms often recoup their own outlay on the acquisition of a target company by a PE fund it sponsors within the first few years of owning it by requiring payments from the company. Many PE firms sign agreements with target companies that require the companies to pay monitoring and transaction fees. In 2018, 58.0 percent of private equity firms required their portfolio companies to pay them monitoring fees; 85.8 percent required payment of transactions fees.[12] These payments deplete resources that the companies could use to make competitive investments in technology and workers’ skills. The agreements lack transparency. Neither PE fund investors nor the company’s creditors know how much the PE firm is collecting.

In addition to paying fees, the funds may require a portfolio company to take on more debt by issuing junk bonds and using the proceeds to pay a dividend to its private equity owners — a so-called dividend recapitalization. It is not unusual for PE owners to pay themselves a dividend in the first year or two after acquiring a company. In a dividend recapitalization so large that it shocked even seasoned PE observers (who are used to a world where PE firms routinely extract large sums from their portfolio companies), Sycamore Partners had Staples, a company it acquired in 2017, refinance its debt in April 2019 and pay its PE owners a $1 billion dividend. In combination with a payment it took in January 2019, in less than two years Sycamore has extracted more than 80 percent of the equity its PE fund originally contributed to the deal.[13]

Sales of real estate or other portfolio company assets are another way private equity owners can extract wealth prior to a resale of the company. Proceeds of these sales repay any loans for which the asset was collateral. Typically, the asset sells for more than the loan, with the difference going to the portfolio company’s PE owners. The portfolio company now has to lease the real estate (or other assets) that it previously owned, and is saddled with rent payments. This differs from the sale-leaseback transaction in which the company gets the proceeds from the sale and can use the funds to improve business operations. In September 2006, Sun Capital Partners acquired Marsh Supermarkets, with 116 groceries and 154 convenience stores, in a leveraged buyout. Soon after it acquired the chain, Sun did a sale-leaseback deal for the real estate of many of Marsh’s stores, raising tens of millions of dollars for itself and obligating the supermarket stores to pay rent on locations they had previously owned. Sun also sold Marsh’s headquarters building and saddled the grocery company with a 20-year lease to 2026 at an annual rent of $2.8 million, scheduled to increase 7 percent five years later. In 2017, with just 44 stores remaining, Marsh went bankrupt.[14] While not all private equity sale-leaseback deals drive portfolio companies into bankruptcy, they do extract wealth and hollow out the companies, reducing their ability to make necessary investments to remain competitive.

Provisions of the Stop Wall Street Looting Act address the negative consequences of these transfers of resources from the portfolio company to its PE owners and protect the interests of the company and its workers both directly and indirectly. In addition to requiring PE firms to share liability for target firm obligations, your legislation confronts the most egregious looting by prohibiting dividend payments in the first two years post-acquisition, taxing private equity firms for the full value of the monitoring fees they charge, allowing creditors to claw back other transfers to the firm in bankruptcy, and ending the tax code’s favorable treatment of debt in highly leveraged companies. These steps to limit actions that strip value from target companies, regardless of their long-term success, would force private equity firms to focus on what they claim to prioritize in the first place—making improvements to the target firm’s business model to better position it for medium- and long-term growth, benefitting workers, customers, investors, and creditors in the process. The legislation would also end the federal policy that currently encourages companies to load up on risky, unsustainable levels of debt by allowing them to deduct interest on that debt from their taxes.

While a portfolio company’s PE owners may not wish it to become bankrupt and most PE deals do not involve bankruptcy, the PE firms often have little or no skin in the game after collecting these dividends and fees. The costs of bankruptcy are borne by the portfolio company, its workers and its creditors. Many provisions of the Stop Wall Street Looting Act protect the interests of workers and creditors in bankruptcy, while also reducing the incentives for PE owners to drive companies into bankruptcy in the first place, such as by extending liability for the portfolio company’s debt to the PE owners themselves. It would also ensure that workers receive legally required payments owed to them such as the 60 days’ pay and benefits required by the WARN Act in the event of a plant closing or mass layoff by making the PE firm jointly liable for those obligations. Under current law, workers do not receive these benefits if the portfolio company cannot afford the payments. Similarly, it holds the PE firm jointly liable with the bankrupt portfolio company for any pension obligations and severance payments.

Since the Financial Crisis, Private Equity Funds Have Failed to Beat the Stock Market

Private equity firms contend that their freewheeling behavior results in returns that beat the stock market by a wide margin and help fund retirees pensions. They caution against killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. This is an argument that might once have made sense, but no longer. Since 2006, the median private equity fund has just tracked the market.[15]

The internal rate of return (IRR), a widely used measure of fund performance and investor returns, has well-known flaws that make it easy to manipulate and inappropriate for this purpose. A major problem with the IRR is that distributions from a PE fund to investors made early in the life of the fund raises the IRR but not the financial returns an investor receives. For example, the sale of a highly successful portfolio company early in the lifespan of a PE fund, which is typically 10 years, can raise the fund’s IRR more than a sale of the same firm a few years later, even if would have brought a higher price if sold later. Similarly, dividend recapitalizations in the early years boost the fund’s IRR even if this transfer of resources to the PE owners weakens the company and leads later to a lower resale price. A higher IRR does not always mean higher returns to pension funds and other investors.

These well-known flaws led finance economists Steven Kaplan and Antoinette Schoar to develop an alternative method for calculating PE fund returns, the public market equivalent (PME). The PME compares returns from investing in PE with returns from comparable and comparably timed investments in the stock market, as measured by an appropriate stock market index. This measure better tracks the priorities of pension funds and other investors in private equity funds: their return by the end of the PE fund’s life span and how that return compares to the amount they would have earned in the stock market. A PME equal to 1 means that the return from investing in the buyout fund exactly matches the return from an equivalent investment in the stock market. A PME greater than 1 indicates that the return from investing in the PE fund was greater than the stock market return; a PME less than 1 means that the investor would have been better off in the stock market. A PME of 1.27, for example, means that the PE fund outperformed the stock market by 27% over the life of the fund. For a PE fund that lasts 10 years — the typical lifespan of PE funds — the cumulative outperformance implies an average annual outperformance just over 2.4%. The PME is the preferred metric of finance economists for evaluating fund performance and investor returns.

Writing in 2015, finance economists Robert S. Harris, Tim Jenkinson, and Steven N. Kaplan observed,[16]

“Buyout fund returns have exceeded those from public markets in almost all vintage years before 2006. Since 2006, buyout fund performance has been roughly equal to those of public markets.”

We can see this decline in performance in Figure 2, which shows cumulative performance of the median fund launched in each year from the year it was launched (its vintage year) to the fourth quarter of 2016. [17]

When comparing returns in private and public equities, it’s important to acknowledge that investing in private equity funds is riskier than investing in the stock market. The investments are illiquid — investors tie up their money for 10 years in a PE fund. A risk premium of 3 percent additional return above the stock market is necessary to compensate investors for this and other risks.[18]

The median fund launched in 2001 out-performed the market by an impressive cumulative 55 percent over the life of the fund. If the fund’s lifespan was 10 years, this is an average annual out-performance of 4.48%. This means that on average, the median PE firm beat the stock market by more than 4 percent each year. Half the funds launched that year did even better. The median PE fund launched in 2001 not only beat the stock market, but provided a return to investors that more than compensated them for the additional risk.

Cumulative out-performance of the median fund launched in 2005 was just 3 percent over 10 years, which implies a risk premium of just 0.3% each year on average. This is far below the 3 percent risk premium these investments should earn to compensate investors for their added riskiness. Since 2006, PE funds performed even more poorly. They just about matched the stock market — some vintages a little higher and some a little lower than the stock market. PE investors in the median fund received no risk premium at all and could have earned the same returns with far less risk by investing in a stock market index. Indeed, half the funds launched since 2006 have failed even to match the performance of a stock market index. Many others failed to provide a risk premium sufficient to account for the lack of liquidity and added risk of private equity investments.

For more than a decade, most retirees could have benefited more from passive investments by pension funds in stock market indexes than from the investments pension funds have made in private equity. Looking only at the absolute returns from investing in private equity misses the point that these riskier investments have failed to provide even higher returns than could have been earned with much less risk in the stock market. Yet limited partners continue to invest in private equity under the illusion — promoted by reliance on the IRR to measure performance — that these investments beat the market.[19]

As for the argument made by some limited partners, including pension trustees, that they only invest in top performing funds — outside of Lake Woebegone, this is clearly not possible for all investors. More importantly, the persistence that existed in the early years of private equity investing — in which a General Partner who had a top-performing fund had a high probability that the follow-on fund would also be top performing — disappeared more than 15 years ago.[20] The persistence of GP performance has declined substantially as the PE industry has matured and competition has increased. Today, past performance of a fund managed by a particular GP is no longer a good predictor of how that GP will perform in the future.

Your proposal will empower investors by increasing transparency around the true return of private equity investments so that investments professionals can make accurate comparisons. The legislation includes new annual reporting requirements, which require private equity funds to make public information about the amount of debt held by portfolio companies and information about the fees charged and actual return on investment. It would also require marketing materials for new funds to include information about historic performance, past bankruptcies of portfolio companies, workers hired and laid off by those companies, and past exit strategies from portfolio companies, which will allow investors like pension funds to determine whether those investments are consistent with their values. Finally, the legislation will end the increasingly prominent practice among the private investment firms of forcing limited partners to waive the fiduciary duties that require the investment firms to work in the best interest of their investors.

Conclusion

Companies owned by private funds touch millions of workers, tenants, students, borrowers, consumers, and families all across the country — and their reach is growing. In their quest to make money, many private equity firms have employed exploitive practices that not only hobble their portfolio companies, but also hurt the people who rely on them. The Stop Wall Street Looting Act will, for the first time, create sensible rules for the private equity industry that will allow productive investment to continue while halting the kinds of abusive practices that wipe out jobs and cripple strong companies.

Eileen Appelbaum, PhD
Co-Director and Senior Economist
appelbaum@CEPR.net

Notes.

[1] 2019 “Private markets come of age.” McKinsey & Company, https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Private%20Equity%20and%20Principal%20Investors/Our%20Insights/Private%20markets%20come%20of%20age/Private-markets-come-of-age-McKinsey-Global-Private-Markets-Review-2019-vF.ashx.

[2] Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt. 2014. Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street, NY: Russell Sage Press.

[3] Edith Hotchkiss, David C. Smith and Per J. Strȍmberg. 2012. “Private Equity and the Resolution of Financial Distress.” Working Paper. www.law.uchicago.edu/files/files/Stromberg.pdf

[4] Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Board, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. 2013. “Interagency Guidance on Leveraged Lending.” Washington, DC: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Board. https://www.federalreserve.gov/supervisionreg/srletters/sr1303a1.pdf

[5] PitchBook. 2019. “2018 Annual US PE Breakdown.” Seattle, WA: PitchBook, p. 4. https://pitchbook.com/news/reports/2018-annual-us-pe-breakdown

[6] Ibid, p. 4.

[7] Kristen Haunss. 2019. “Update 1 – Leveraged loan credit risk warrants attention, regulators testify,” Loan Pricing Corporation, Reuters, May 15. https://www.reuters.com/article/levloan-risk/update-1-leveraged-loan-credit-risk-warrants-attention-regulators-testify-idUSL2N22R0XP; Jesse Hamilton. 2019. “Fed Challenged Over View that Leveraged Loans Won’t Cause Crisis,” Bloomberg, May 15. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-05-15/fed-s-quarles-challenged-over-view-of-leveraged-lending-s-threat; Dean Baker. 2018. “Corporate Debt Scares,” CEPR, October 11. http://cepr.net/blogs/beat-the-press/corporate-debt-scares

[8] John McNellis, 2019. “Retail’s Existential Threat is Private Equity,” The Registry, April 15. https://news.theregistrysf.com/mcnellis-retails-existential-threat-is-private-equity/

[9] Alana Semuels, 2019 “When Wall Street is Your Landlord,” The Atlantic, February 13. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/02/single-family-landlords-wall-street/582394/.

[10] Robert Kuttner and Hildy Zenger. 2017. “Saving the Free Press From Private Equity,” The American Prospect, December 27, https://prospect.org/article/saving-free-press-private-equity.

[11] Tracy Rucinski, 2018 “HCR ManorCare files for bankruptcy with $7.1 billion in debt,” Reutters, March 5, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hcrmanorcare-bankruptcy-quality-care/hcr-manorcare-files-for-bankruptcy-with-7-1-billion-in-debt-idUSKBN1GH2BU.

[12] PitchBook. 2018. “2018 Annual Global PE Deal Multiples.” Seattle, WA: PitchBook, p. 3. https://files.pitchbook.com/website/files/pdf/PitchBook_2018_Annual_Global_PE_Deal_Multiples.pdf

[13] Eliza Ronalds-Hannon and David Scigliuzzo. 2019. “”Sycamore Pockets $1 Billion from Deal that Amazed Wall Street,” Bloomberg, April 11. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-11/sycamore-pockets-1-billion-from-deal-that-amazed-wall-street

[14] Rosemary Batt and Eileen Appelbaum. 2018. “Private Equity Pillage: Grocery Stores and Workers at Risk,” The American Prospect, October 26. https://prospect.org/article/private-equity-pillage-grocery-stores-and-workers-risk

[15] Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt. 2018. “Are Lower Private Equity Returns the New Normal?” in Michael Wright et al. (editors), The Routledge Companion to Management Buyouts, Routledge.

[16] Robert S. Harris, Tim Jenkinson, and Steven N. Kaplan.2015. “How Do Private Equity Investments Perform Compared to Public Equity?” Journal of Investment Management. Darden Business School Working Paper No. 2597259, June 15. Available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2597259.

[17] PitchBook. 2017. PE and VC Fund Performance. Data through Q4 2016.

[18] Risks specific to private equity include: leverage risk (potential for default and bankruptcy of portfolio company); business risk (some portfolio companies may face special risks as when Energy Future Holdings’ PE investors bet on price of natural gas rising and instead it collapsed); liquidity risk (investments by LPs are typically for a 10-year period and cannot be withdrawn if economic conditions change); commitment risk (uncertain timing of capital calls and distributions means that LPs may face difficulties if capital is called on short notice or distributions they are counting on are delayed); structural risk (potential for misalignment of GP and LP interests as when GP collects monitoring fees from a portfolio company that later reduces resale price of the company). See Appelbaum and Batt. 2018. “Are Lower Private Equity Returns the New Normal?” p. 254

[19] Rosemary Batt and Eileen Appelbaum. 2019. “The Agency Costs of Private Equity: Why do Limited Partners Funds Still Invest?” Academy of Management Perspectives. Forthcoming

[20] Robert S. Harris, Tim Jenkinson, Steven N. Kaplan and Ruediger Stucke. 2014. “Has Persistence Persisted in Private Equity? Evidence from Buyout and Venture Capital Funds.” SSRN Working Paper. http://ssrn.com/abstract=2304808; Reiner Braun, Tim Jenkinson, and Ingo Stoff. 2017. “How Persistent Is Private Equity Performance? Evidence from Deal-Level Data.” Journal of Financial Economics 123(2) (Feb.): 273-291.

This letter first appeared on CEPR.

The post Stop Wall Street Looting Act: a Letter to Elizabeth Warren appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

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