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Yet Another Trump Tax Scam Has Been Exposed

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Urban policy experts along with progressive groups and politicians responded with outrage to a New York Times report published Saturday that detailed how the Trump administration’s “signature plan” to help low-income communities across the United States with a multibillion-dollar tax break has “fueled a wave of developments financed by and built for the wealthiest Americans.”

The tax break was part of the legislation critics dubbed the GOP tax scam, which Republicans forced through Congress and President Donald Trump signed into law in December of 2017. Linking to the new report, the progressive advocacy organization MoveOn tweeted, “Like everything else about the GOP’s 2017 tax scam, a program supposedly meant to benefit poor communities is just another handout to the rich.”

According to the Times:

Among the early beneficiaries of the tax incentive are billionaire financiers like Leon Cooperman and business magnates like Sidney Kohl—and Mr. Trump’s family members and advisers.

Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey; Richard LeFrak, a New York real estate titan who is close to the president; Anthony Scaramucci, a former White House aide who recently had a falling out with Mr. Trump; and the family of Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, all are looking to profit from what is shaping up to be a once-in-a-generation bonanza for elite investors.

The purpose of the program, as the Times explained, “was to coax investors to pump cash into poor neighborhoods” by allowing them “to sell stocks or other investments and delay capital gains taxes for years—as long as they plow the proceeds into projects in federally certified opportunity zones.”

However, instead of low-income communities reaping the benefits of such investments, “billions of untaxed investment profits are beginning to pour into high-end apartment buildings and hotels, storage facilities that employ only a handful of workers, and student housing in bustling college towns, among other projects,” the Times reported.

Though the report sparked immediate criticism of the program, Yonah Freemark, a doctoral candidate in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, noted on Twitter that “we always knew that this was going to happen—it’s how the bill was written.”

Trump’s “opportunity zone” tax break—supposedly meant to improve low-income neighborhoods—has actually resulted in luxury development in wealthy communities. But we always knew that this was going to happen—it’s how the bill was written. https://t.co/c4Zr0RfiGA

— Yonah Freemark (@yfreemark) August 31, 2019

Among those who highlighted the report were 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidates Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“President Trump has many critics,” tweeted Sanders. “But as a con artist, he is a talent of the highest caliber.”

Even the part of Trump’s tax scam supposedly for low-income neighborhoods is a massive tax avoidance scheme for the ultra-rich.

President Trump has many critics. But as a con artist, he is a talent of the highest caliber. https://t.co/lIc2IBk2Zj

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) September 1, 2019

The post Yet Another Trump Tax Scam Has Been Exposed appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

American Workers Have Little to Celebrate This Labor Day

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This piece originally appeared on Informed Comment

On Labor Day, American workers have little to celebrate. That’s alright. The September Labor Day, while initially proposed by some workers in the 1880s, was backed by conservative President Grover Cleveland over May 1, which he associated with radicalism (i.e. with workers who would demand their rights). So it really isn’t for the workers, it is for the bosses.

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David Harrison at the Wall Street Journal reports that the lower 50% of US households by wealth have 32% less wealth than in 2003 in real numbers.

They have only now, in 2009, finally regained the wealth they lost in the Great Bush near-Depression of 2007-2009.

So they’ve gotten back to what they had in the way of assets (home value and other valuables; probably not stocks, since that half of Americans doesn’t typically own securities) in 2007, but not what they had in 2003.

There are 129 million households in the United States, so this means about 64.5 million households are one-third worse off with regard to asset ownership than when Bush went to war in Iraq. (Is there a connection?)

In contrast, the top 1% of households, 1.29 million of them, have twice as many assets as they did in 2003.

Harrison says that the rate of increase in inequality in wealth holdings is even greater than that in income.

Speaking of income, the average wage of the average worker in real terms has been static for decades. Americans after WWII were used to getting better off each year. Those who aren’t wealthy haven’t, since about 1970.

The poor got significantly poorer in the past two decades, and the rich got significantly richer. This broad social trend helps to explain our politics, in which workers suffer from frequent wage theft (a technique Trump perfected), from wages on which most people can’t actually live, and from downward mobility.

The other part of our politics is our plutocracy, in which a small number of billionaires runs the society for their own profit and benefit. Campaign finance laws have been gutted by the Republicans on the Supreme Court, so that a nonentity like Trump could use his ill-gotten gains to more or less just buy the election, along with his dark-money backers. Trump repaid the backers by cutting taxes massively on the top 1%, creating a $1 trillion a year Federal budget deficit. Since the government supplies services to people, and it can no longer afford to provide the same level of service, this “tax cut” is actually a tax on workers.

Last year I anticipated the WSJ story in some ways with a column surveying similar findings. I pointed out that joining the Democratic Socialists of America and a labor union were among the remedies for our bad case of plutocratitis.

The post American Workers Have Little to Celebrate This Labor Day appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Death and Resistance on the U.S.-Mexico Border: A Democracy Now! Special

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Democracy Now! travels to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona to follow the humanitarian activist Scott Warren into the Sonoran Desert as he accompanies other No More Deaths volunteers as they leave water and food for migrants making the treacherous journey north. Warren is currently facing up to 10 years in prison for his humanitarian work in the Sonoran Desert, where the bodies and bones of more than 3,000 people — nearly all migrants — have been found since 2001. We also speak to the Tucson-based artist Alvaro Enciso, creator of the project Where Dreams Die. He has built and installed over 900 crosses across the treacherous Sonoran Desert to mark where migrants have died.

The Only 2020 Democrats Who Actually Want to Empower Workers

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This Labor Day, Democratic presidential candidates will no doubt be touting their support for a $15 per hour minimum wage. None have opposed the idea.

A minimum wage increase would put more money in workers’ pockets. But so far, only two candidates — Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — have far-reaching proposals to give workers something even more important: more power.

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Both senators, for example, support the idea of requiring big corporations to give workers a seat in their boardrooms.

Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act would guarantee workers the right to elect 40 percent of their firm’s board of directors. Warren hopes this will help companies break with the “shareholder-first” model that has resulted in a fixation on short-term profits.

In Europe, such “codetermination” policies are widely prevalent, providing unions a strong voice in corporate decision-making. In Germany, for instance, workers choose a significant proportion of company board members — and in certain industries, worker representatives exercise equivalent control to shareholders.

In addition to his Workplace Democracy Plan, which among other things would allow workers to organize throughout entire industries (and not just at their individual workplaces), Sanders is also reportedly developing a proposal to give workers a direct ownership stake in their companies.

This idea also has European roots.

In the UK, for example, the Labour Party program for Inclusive Ownership Funds would gradually shift up to 10 percent of large firms’ stock ownership into worker funds. Workers would receive dividends of up to around $600 per year, with any excess revenue going national welfare programs.

This UK plan can be traced back to a similar, but bolder, proposal in 1970s Sweden.

At that time, Swedish trade unions had agreed to keep wages down as part of an anti-inflation pact with employers and the government. But trade union economist Rudolf Meidner saw how corporations were accumulating excess profits in the arrangement and vowed to do something about it.

Under the “Meidner Plan,” Swedish workers would’ve continued to go without inflation-creating pay raises, but their economic power would’ve increased through the transfer of corporate voting share into new employee investment funds. After just a few decades of operation, Meidner envisioned these funds securing majority control over the Swedish stock market.

The plan sparked a massive corporate backlash. Even ABBA opposed it! (Band members not only topped the global pop charts — they also happened to own several companies.) The country’s center-left Social Democratic Party eventually rejected it, too.

Still, Meidner’s vision remains inspiring. Here in the United States, looking at how executives and wealthy shareholders have pocketed the lion’s share of Republican tax cut windfalls, it’s clearer than ever that we need transformative change if workers are to get their fair share of the fruits of their labor.

A Next System Project poll found that a majority of Americans already support a policy resembling the proposed UK Inclusive Ownership Funds.

Economists have long grappled with how to couple traditional tax and wage policy with the broader question of building worker power. In the 2020 election, both Sanders and Warren have proven serious about confronting the latter challenge — though a few things still separate them.

Sanders deserves special praise for explicitly naming the “working class” movement he hopes to build. Recent reports revealed that Warren’s campaign, by contrast, repeatedly crossed a Culinary Union picket line in Las Vegas, which shows that we must hold “pro-worker” candidates accountable too.

This Labor Day, it’s time this country had a real conversation about building power for the working class.

The post The Only 2020 Democrats Who Actually Want to Empower Workers appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Retreat from Rising Seas? It May Be Controversial, but It’s the World’s New Reality.

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This story was originally published by Grist and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Indonesia just found itself a new capital. The country’s president, Joko Widodo, announced last Monday that the new seat of government will be on the island of Borneo, hundreds of miles to the northeast of the current capital, Jakarta. The crowded city’s aquifers have been drained and the ground is caving in, making it one of the fastest sinking cities in the world. The Java Sea threatens to swallow 95 percent of the city over the next 30 years.

Retreating from coastlines and riversides might have once been considered unthinkable. But across the world, it’s already happening—in Australia, Colombia, Vietnam, and here in the United States. Thousands of homeowners in Houston have asked the local county to buy their chronically flooded properties. A New Jersey town is moving residents out of risky areas near the rivers and turning the land into a natural buffer to protect other homes. The US military is at work constructing a new site for an indigenous Yup’ik community in Alaska that asked to be relocated after thawing permafrost beneath the village caused it to slide into the river.

An overheating planet and unchecked development along the coasts have let the sea expand into new territory, leaving many people who live along the shores unsettled (in both senses of the word). According to the United Nations, up to 1 billion people could be displaced by storms, droughts, and floods in 30 years. In the United States, the cost for protecting people and property from rising seas and intense downpours is expected to climb into the hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades—and that’s a conservative estimate.

There’s “an ongoing mass migration” away from our coasts, said Elizabeth Rush, author of the Pulitzer-prize nominated book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. “These changes will happen whether we like it or not,” Rush said. “How profoundly and how detrimentally they reshape our coastal communities is up to us.”

“These changes will happen whether we like it or not. How profoundly and how detrimentally they reshape our coastal communities is up to us.”

“Managed retreat” is a controversial response to climate change. It’s the idea that communities and governments should be strategic about moving people away from areas that have become too waterlogged to live in safely. The phrase used to be, and maybe still is, taboo—Rush called it “a four-letter word”—but it’s beginning to make its way into the public conversation as one of the tools we can use to adapt to sea-level rise.

Presidential candidate and former tech executive Andrew Yang released a plan on Monday preparing for the “inevitability” of sea-level rise, promising coastal communities $40 billion to help people “move to higher ground” or elevate their homes, plus another $30 billion in seawalls, sewer upgrades, natural barriers, and other forms of protection from the rising seas.

The idea is also getting attention from academics, with a first-of-its-kind conference about coastal relocation earlier this summer. In a recent paper in the journal Science, researchers from universities across the country made the case for managed retreat. There’s no longer any question that some communities will have to move, they write, “but why, where, when, and how.” Although it’s usually treated as a last resort, the researchers conclude that in some cases, relocating neighborhoods away from flood zones can open up new opportunities for those in harm’s way.

But there are many obstacles. Among the biggest: Managed retreat has a reputation problem. In California, where more than 30 cities and counties are mired in difficult discussions about how to protect their coastlines, few things have managed to get people more riled up than the idea of abandoning America’s prime real estate. When officials in the town of Pacifica said that moving inland instead of fighting the ocean was the most cost-effective option, outraged homeowners mounted a campaign against the city officials, flooding town meetings, putting up signs all over town, and, eventually, voting the mayor out of office.

It’s no surprise that conversations around coastal retreat are framed in war terms— the battlefield image is already baked in with the word “retreat,” after all. “We need to stop picturing our relationship with nature as a war,” said A.R. Siders, the lead author of the coastal retreat study and assistant professor at the University of Delaware, in a press release. “We’re not winning or losing: we’re adjusting to changes in nature.”

But there are less fraught ways to talk about the issue. “I joke and say, why don’t we call it ‘moving’?” Rush said. “But I’m sort of not kidding about that.”

There’s some value in using a more familiar, common-sense word. “It puts it into a broader conversation about what it means to move, what it means to be displaced,” Rush said. “These are questions that human beings have been facing long before climate change became a stressor.”

It’s not exactly a new idea. Early hunter-gatherers lived in impermanent shelters, moving around in search of more plentiful food. Indigenous communities in the Americas lived along the Mississippi River in shelters that could be packed up and moved when the river swelled and flooded the surrounding area. Things are different in the modern world, now that we’ve dammed the rivers and built concrete foundations right along the edge of the coast. But that hasn’t stopped people from moving away from danger. Consider the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. People who had moved to the Great Plains during a wetter period had to migrate again as drought and dust storms came rolling in. The regions’ deep-rooted prairie grasses had been plowed by farmers, leaving the soil less resilient to drought.

One thing that the media often gets wrong about managed retreat, Rush said, is that it doesn’t necessarily spell the “end” of a community—it just means moving the people in the most vulnerable areas out of harm’s way.

She points to New York City’s Staten Island, where three communities came together and secured buyouts after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The state offered those who relocated a 5 percent bonus above market value if they stayed nearby but out of the high-risk flood zone. Several years later, a study found that 79 percent of buyout participants still lived within the five boroughs.

“A lot of people in Staten Island still go to the same butcher, they still meet at the same seafood restaurants and eat cod sandwiches, they still see the same people on the weekend,” Rush said. “They just don’t live anymore in a house that floods.”

In her journeys to visit coastal communities around the country, Rush has seen managed retreat fail and succeed. The difference between the two, she said, is whether the idea to move away from flood-prone areas comes from the ground up or the top down. A lot of people really want to get out of their homes, but it can be “deeply upsetting” if some local official comes in and tells them they have to sell their house, especially because these communities often feel neglected (see Hurricane Katrina). A grassroots approach, like the one taken in Staten Island, tends to get more folks on board.

And depending on your vantage point, managed retreat can be seen as a solution, rather than a defeat. Build a sea wall, and you lose the beach and the wildlife communities that depend on it. You can put your home up on stilts, but the infrastructure below ground is still vulnerable. Managed retreat, Rush said, “is one of the few strategies to respond to flooding that actually takes seriously the scale of the risk.”

America’s White Problem Revisited

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Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“What is commonly designated as the Negro problem is really a white problem. Will we whites continue to pass by on the other side and deny or evade the problem?”

–Albert Bigelow, “The White Problem” (1963)

“People pay for what they do, and, still more for what they allowed themselves to become. . . And they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead. The crucial thing, here, is that the sum of these individual abdications menaces life all over the world. For, in the generality, as social and moral and political and sexual entities, white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today.”

–James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (1972)

Almost two decades ago when Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. penned The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1991), the threat of American white extremism was, if not quite unimagined, profoundly underestimated. Instead, Schlesinger lays the blame for what he calls the “decomposition of America” on the rise of “tribalism,” with Afrocentrism, “multiculturalists” and “ethnocentric separatist,” who in Schlesinger’s view see “the western tradition [as] inherently racist, sexist, ‘classist,’ hegemonic; irredeemably repressive, irredeemably oppressive,” presenting a clear and present danger. In some ways, the book presages Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996), another in a long tradition of apocalyptic treatises on the rising tide of color, although this time penned by cold war liberals who offer a more palatable version lacking the overtly racist demagoguery of previous scribes. Like Huntington, Schlesinger envisions that the threat to western, specifically American values and institutions comes from an imagined Brown Peril of teeming dark-skinned others not from those who have historically rejected them – i.e., white racial narcissists. As Sam Tanenhaus wrote in his 2017 review of the book in The Atlantic, “though its critique of the ‘politics of identity’ and the ‘tribal antagonisms’ it bred should have included a harder look at his own privileged tribe, its delusions as well as its prejudices and presumptions.”

Unlike Schlesinger’s nightmarish vision, the primary agents of America’s disintegration are white not black. In an increasingly fragmented nation, a white racist – not an Afrocentrist – occupies the seat of American power, enabled by a corps of sycophantic Republicans and a Democratic Party whose leadership twiddles its thumbs as Trump fiddles amidst a national conflagration he himself gleefully fans. For all their shortcomings, Schlesinger’s rabble-rousing Afrocentric bogeymen are nowhere to be seen; for all his rhetorical bluster, they did not – and do not – hold Tiki-torch hate rallies or plot and carry out mass shootings, although law enforcement has cast Black Lives Matter and other organizations demanding social justice in the role and built a speciously false equivalence between them and real white domestic terrorists. In fact, like Schlesinger, the government ignores this uncomfortable reality to focus instead on the imagined scourge of “black identity extremists” (BIE), the fanciful enemy it has fabricated and pursued in one form or another since the Orwellian days (Big Master has always been watching) of the FBI’s RACON (1942-1943) and COINTELPRO (1956-1971) domestic surveillance programs.

As leaked FBI reports obtained by The Young Turks’ investigative reporter Ken Klippenstein reveal, IRON FIST (seriously, is the FBI now casting itself as the spandexed Defender of the American way?), the ominous codename of its latest program to surveil and infiltrate alleged “black extremist” groups, was set up following the Ferguson protests in response to the killing of Michael Brown, a clear indication that it regards Black Lives Matter and other groups of organized grievance protesting police brutality and social injustice as national threats, a not particularly surprising position given the fact that the powers that be have always considered black grievance a threat to the state and the white supremacism that sustains it.

More revealing, and more disturbing, the documents show that the FBI places the threat of such groups higher than white extremists with proven trail of violence and dead bodies to attest to their lethal intent. Reports from 2019 to 2020 rank black identity extremism as the top counterterrorist priority, even above al-Qaeda. Yet according to a 2018 threat guidance document, “The FBI judges BIE perceptions of police brutality against African Americans have likely [my emphasis] motivated acts of pre-meditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement,” hardly compelling evidence. On the contrary, as far speculative possibilities are concerned, it extremely unlikely that such groups will engage in violence for the simple reason that, as Foreign Policy reported in 2017, there is no documented evidence they actually exist outside of the FBI’s hyperactive imagination, a point former government officials and legal experts themselves acknowledge.

But then this nation’s proclivity for imagining potential weapons of its destruction rather than confronting and disarming real ones is nothing new. After all, what should one expect from a government that goes to war with Iraq over 9/11 and nonexistent WMDs but spares Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers hailed from there and the existence of Saudi royal family financial links to terrorist organizations. Jamal Khashoggi died for our sins, as have – and no doubt will – countless thousands of others.

Typically, rather than confront the FBI’s cynical legerdemain, corporate media prefers to present every Trumpian inanity as a strategic ploy masterfully designed by the tweeter-in-chief to distract his critics, although the real distraction comes from the media’s promotion of this myth. This, too, is a symptom of America’s white problem. For while the media focuses its attention on past and present Russian interference in U.S. elections and the political theater of Mueller’s congressional testimony on the matter, it fails to pursue with the same persistent, inquisitive gusto domestically generated threats such as gerrymandering, voter suppression, and spurious election fraud allegations arising from a far more insidious internal enemy that carry far more consequences for our democracy than any cloak-and-dagger Kremlin machination, if only because we have inflicted them upon ourselves.

Trump, the bloated, pampered embodiment of white privilege, is a beneficiary of the unearned perks of paleness. Thus, it should come as no surprise that white American would rather debate whether Trump is a racist than actually do anything about it by confronting the basis of his power and dismantling the appeal of his divisive racist rhetoric. Again, this, too, is a manifestation of the white problem. For had Obama done a fraction of the things Trump has done, he would have been ousted from office. Had he behaved like a petulant brat on the world stage, hobnobbed with tyrants, and bullied and belittled any and all that questioned his behavior and his policies, not only would his qualifications as president – and as a human being – been questioned (as they still were, along with his American citizenship, even in the absence of such character flaws), but so, too, those who share his color. Tea Party caucus member Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who infamously shouted “You Lie!” at Obama during an address before a joint-session of Congress in 2009 but who had nothing but praise for Trump’s lie-infested 2018 UN General Assembly speech, has yet to call out Trump on any of his estimated 12,000 -plus lies since assuming office, a silence shared by his Republican colleagues, some of whom have only recently found their huevos (they have had less success with extracting their collective heads, which remain stuck in a sunless place) and mustered enough strength to sputter weak objections in panicked response to a possible recession and, consequently, fears for their political future.

In 2017, the Orange Skull, as Art Spiegelman has dubbed the white supremacist man-child that intermittently occupies the Oval Office between costly golf trips to Mar-a-Lago, invited to the White House racist, misogynist, Jeffrey Epstein wannabe, and crotch-grabber (albeit his own) Ted Nugent, whose fecal spurs1 kept him from serving in Vietnam. More recently, as Media Matters reported in July, the White House invited several right-wing extremists to a social media summit, including YouTube influencer Tim Pool, Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, and Brent Bozell, whose Media Research Center once promoted an article from self-avowed “racial realist” Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance website that asserted: “Experience has also taught me that blacks are different by almost any measure to all other people. They cannot reason as well. They cannot communicate as well. They cannot control their impulses as well. They are a threat to all who cross their paths, black and non-black alike.” The link has since been removed with a disclaimer stating, “NewsBusters does not associate with known white nationalists” – but apparently it doesn’t mind associating with relatively unknown ones until, it seems, they are exposed.

As Taylor demonstrates, America’s white problem is not confined to American shores. In August 2017, Taylor appeared on a Japanese news program following the tragedy in Charlottesville.2 Introduced as “godfather of the alt-right,” Taylor espoused his anti-black views in fluent Japanese, expressing his support for Trump’s anti-immigration policies because they will prevent whites from becoming a minority, dismissing uniformed Nazi marchers as “ineffective and counter-productive” (mukōka, gyakukōka) to the advancement of the “white interests” (hakujin no rigai) and insisting on the inevitability of racial separation to maintain social order and ensure the survival of the white race. (That the Japanese media has devoted endless hours to discussion of the rise of white supremacy in America under Trump, but assiduously refrains from discussing Japanese racism against their own domestic minorities, particularly Koreans, is a subject for another article.)

One wonders if Taylor’s name appears on the FBI’s list of racial extremists, given that according to its 2020 threat guidelines, one of the criteria for being labeled RMVE (Racially Motivated Violent Extremist), at least in the case of BIE, is the “use of force or violence in violation of criminal law in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society, or in an effort to establish a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States.” Interestingly, although the FBI softened the guideline’s racial element in response to criticism by the media and legal experts over their use of the term BIE, substituting it with the racially neutral RMVE, it now appears that only attacking racism and using violence to establish a black homeland constitute “violent extremism”; being racist, advocating for a “white homeland” (not specifically mentioned in the report), relying on state-sanctioned violence in the form of draconian immigration policies that rip children from their parents, cage immigrants and asylum seekers, and refuse to provide them with the same level of humane care guaranteed prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention apparently do not.

America’s white problem is ubiquitous and pandemic, plaguing not only, as we have seen, law enforcement but boardrooms, colleges and universities, corporate media and even AIs that, among other things, are unable to distinguish photographs of blacks from gorillas, an inability they share with some television news hosts. It is both institutional and personal and cannot be solved by simple if apparently heartfelt apologies.

The tragic irony of America’s white problem, one which has not substantially changed in the decades since the observations of Bigelow and Baldwin that open this essay, is the persistence of denial and evasion which has prevented whites from acknowledging the role whites themselves play in their own discontent and which prompts them to seek solutions that project their fears and insecurities upon the world around them instead of confronting the true source of their angst, in the end exacerbating both their misery as well as of that of those whose humanity they reject.


1 According to former MSNBC host Martin Bashir, Nugent may have an “obsession with fecal matter,” which may explain his attraction to Trumpism.

2 Shūkan Hōdō Life [Weekly Report Life]. BS-TBS, August 27, 2017.


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How Animal Researchers Stay Out of the News

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Photograph Source: USDA – Digital reproduction of image produced by USDA – Public Domain

If you are like most people, you know a lot more about how farm animals are treated on factory farms than dogs, primates and other animals are treated in US labs. It is no coincidence.

Exposure of what occurs behind the Plexiglass Curtain would be so damaging to National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded university research contracts that millions are spent to prevent transparency. For example, in 2009 the University of Iowa was cleared to construct an $11.2 million, 35,000 square foot “subterranean vivarium that will house experimental animals to be used in biomedical research and offer an extra measure of protection from animal rights extremists,” reported The Scientist. The experimental animals include primates, sheep, pigs and rabbits.

Lab animals are the actual currency of government grants to medical centers and universities–a kind of academic pork. At a medical center where I worked, researchers felt they had not “made it” until they were given primates instead of lowly cats or rodents. And while NIH Director Francis Collins, who describes himself as a “serious Christian,” has tackled a lack of minorities and sexism in science, he is strangely silent on the millions, probably billions, of animals he sends to their death.

Animal Research at the Highest Government Levels

Thomas R. Insel directed the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University, one of the world’s largest centers for primate research, before becoming director of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health. In one experiment Insel participated in, newborn monkeys were “removed from their mothers within 48 h of birth,” and subjected to “stressors” without being “able to use a social companion to buffer their response to a stressor.” What was learned? “As expected from previous studies, monkeys removed from their mother shortly after birth and raised in standard nursery conditions develop a syndrome characterized by decreased affiliation, increased aggression, and increased self-directed, repetitive behavior.”

In another experiment conducted by Insel on voles, a mouse-like mammal, “an animal was placed in the start box” with 2-8 days old pups. “Parental behavior was recorded as time spent with pups, either nursing, grooming or crouching during a 5-min period. Females were decapitated the same day.”

Similar banal, cruel and taxpayer funded research has been conducted by Nora Volkow, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. One research paper co-written by Volkow shows a bloody “pregnant bonnet macaque in transverse position within HR+ PET scanner . . . positioned so that maternal and fetal organs were within same field of view.” The paper concludes that when female primates are dosed with cocaine, fetuses are affected too. Does anyone not know this?

The NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA) is also complicit. A few year ago, when I inquired about degrading and mocking primate images posted on its web site from an official NIA workshop created by Wake Forest’s Thomas Clarkson the images were promptly removed with no written explanations. The photos showed monkeys posed with glasses, posed at typewriters and dressed in clothing. “Funny” cartoon bubbles were added.

Defending Their Dollars

There is probably no industry more afraid of transparency than animal research. Ever since Alex Pacheco exposed treatment of the Silver Spring monkeys in 1981, animal researchers have been reduced to uttering “it’s not how it looks” or “let us explain” when unwanted images surface.

And, expectedly, animal researchers turn nasty when their deeds are exposed and career security threatened. For example, when a group called Progress for Science dared to question taxpayer funded primate research conducted at UCLA in 2014, they were met by an angry mob of as many as 40 UCLA researchers and their supporters who yelled obscenities. Some pro-animal research protesters became so livid they had to be restrained by police. It was hard to believe the mob was, by day, men and women of “science” dedicated to advancing human medicine. It was reminiscent of Northwestern University medical students who jeered protestors of their “dog labs” outside their medical building in 1988–future healers.

In the 1980s, the animal research industry tried to spin negative public opinion with campaigns like “your daughter or your dog” implying your child would die if the dog or chimp didn’t. Then researchers replaced dog labs with pig labs, a less loved animal. But by the 2000s, the animal research industry, running scared, pushed through the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act which criminalizes interference with “the operations of an animal enterprise” a precursor to “Ag-Gag” laws covering farm operations.

Yes The Public Can Judge Animal Research

In addition to underground vivariums, electronic surveillance, code cards, high tech security and the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, the animal research industry has another way of evading scrutiny: the public can’t judge their “high level” science. You can’t judge the work of scientists plus it is for your own good. Yet revealing that maternal deprivation causes harm in babies or maternal cocaine use affects the fetus is not “high level” science–it is a waste of taxpayer dollars, cruelty to animals and an insult to our intelligence.

Millions of restrained, conscious animals–usually albino rabbits but sometimes dogs–are subjected to the “Draize Test” which involves applying test substances to the eye or skin and observing for redness, swelling, discharge, ulceration, hemorrhaging, cloudiness, or blindness in the tested eye. Yet when product liability cases actually come to court, these “tests” are thrown out because “animal results cannot be extrapolated to humans.”

The animal-research industry is a vast, macabre enterprise richly supporting medical centers and individual researchers with almost no transparency or accountability. The public is denied a right to “know” even though the public pays for it.


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The Crazed, Rogue Leader is in Washington Not Tehran

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Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

History in the Middle East is unkind to us westerners. Just when we thought we were the good guys and the Iranians were the bad guys, here comes the ghostly, hopeless possibility of a Trump-Rouhani summit to remind us that the apparent lunatic is the US president and the rational, sane leader who is supposed to talk to him is the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. All these shenanigans are fantasy, of course – like the “imminent” war between America and Iran – of which more later.

As for the Israelis, they don’t want the man who thinks he might be “King of Israel” talking to the Hitlerite Persians. They suddenly sprayed Iran’s local Middle East proxies with drone-fired rockets – in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – just in case the wretched, financially broken and inflation-doomed Iranians were tempted to chat to the crackpot in the White House. But the Israelis wasted their ammunition. Rouhani is not mad. America has to drop its sanctions against Iran if Trump wants to talk, he said.

It still amazes me that we have to take all this stuff at face value. No sooner had Trump waffled on about Rouhani being “the great negotiator” than we saw all the White House correspondents dutifully taking this nonsense down in their notebooks – as if the American president was presidential, as if the old dream-bag was real, as if what he was saying had the slightest bearing on reality.

And when Rouhani made it clear that he was not interested in “photo-ops” – an obvious allusion to the pictures of Trump and Little Rocket Man – what did the po-faced Washington Post tell us in its subsequent report? Why, that Rouhani had “dashed hopes of a potential meeting with his US counterpart”. Ye Gods! What “hopes” do they still have in their homegrown crackpot president after these two and a half years of his threats and lies and racism? Have they learned nothing?

It’s as if – for the American media – Trump is unhinged in Washington but a Kissinger the moment he lands in Biarritz (or London or Riyadh or Panmunjom or a Scottish golf course, or perhaps, one day, Greenland). And Rouhani – who may be a “great negotiator” but is also a very ruthless man – is therefore supposed to play the role of Iran’s previous president, the raving, crazed, Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Indeed, had Ahmadinejad’s further political ambitions not been firmly crushed by his country’s “supreme leader”, Ayatollah Khamenei, we might just have witnessed a meeting between two of the world’s leading political nutcases. Ahmadinejad, it may be recalled, was the Iranian who claimed that a holy cloud was suspended over his head for 20 minutes when he addressed the United Nations in New York. Now that is a phenomenon which Trump may also have experienced – although at least he had the good sense not to tell us of it.

Ahmadinejad, you may also remember, was the president whose claim to have won the 2009 presidential elections brought millions of protestors onto the streets of Iranian cities until they were brutalised and imprisoned into submission. His cheeky smile, chipmunk eyes and Spanish armada beard could not persuade Iranians that the “alternative facts” of his presidential victory were real.

Everyone knew that Ahmadinejad would never be given a finger on any nuclear button – many doubted if he knew the difference between nuclear physics and electricity – but he provided at the time a hate figure to rival Gaddafi or any other of the ravers of the Middle East.

But now Trump wears Ahmadinejad’s international mantle of insanity and the Iranian presidential seat is today held by a far more pragmatic individual. For let’s not be romantic about Hassan Rouhani. Back in 1999, when he was a humble deputy chief of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Rouhani condemned pro-democracy demonstrators as “muhareb” and “mofsad” (corrupt on earth) – opponents of the Islamic Republic, whose punishment would be death.

In the first eight months after Rouhani became president in 2013, the Iranian state hanged at least 537 people. In January of 2014, he had, according to a report in the Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, visited Ahwaz to deal with “a number of sensitive files” left untouched by Ahmadinejad. These included Hashem Shaabani and Hadi Rashedi – both human rights activists in the minority Arab community in southwest Iran – who had been condemned to death for “waging war on God”, “spreading corruption on earth” and “questioning the principle of velayat-e faqih” (guardianship of the jurist).

Shaabani’s poetry, in both Persian and Arabic, was famous; he was a founder of an institute which encouraged Arabic literature and culture among Iranians. Rouhani signed off on the executions; Shaabani and Rashedi were hanged in a still-unidentified prison.

But it is Rouhani’s negotiating skill which has apparently impressed Trump, who also has little time for minorities. And when you recall that one of Trump’s Republican predecessors in the White House, Ronald Reagan, arranged for the Israelis to deliver missiles to Iran in 1985 in return for the release of US hostages in Beirut, you can see why Trump might think it strange that Rouhani would turn down a meeting with him. After all, during the Iran-Contra affair the then Iranian speaker of parliament, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was deeply involved in the enterprise.

But even if Rouhani was fool enough to flirt with Trump’s offer – which he was not – his fate would have been similar to the poet Shaabani’s if he had dared to talk to the US president without the full restoration of the nuclear treaty.

It doesn’t take much spreading of “corruption on earth” in Iran – let alone disavowing the views of the Supreme Leader Khamanei – to catapult a learned cleric into prison. Having learned from his foreign minister in Biarritz what the American deal was supposed to be, Rouhani wisely did not touch it. The US had broken the nuclear treaty and reimposed sanctions – so Trump would have to rejoin the treaty signatories and lift sanctions for any hope of a meeting with the president of the Islamic Republic.

Of course, the Iranians will no more go to war with America than America will go to war with Iran. We all know that – except for those who blast us all with “brink-of-war” scenarios in the Gulf. We’ve been through Iranian ship-minings in 1987 without declarations of war. Besides, what’s so new about an Iran insisting on its “sovereign” right to peaceful nuclear power?

When the shah of Iran wanted to acquire nuclear technology in 1974, according to documents in the US National Security Archive, he said that Iran had an “inalienable right” to the nuclear cycle and that it would not accept obligations “dictated by the nuclear-have nations”.

Which is pretty much what Iran did accept in the nuclear agreement which Trump tore up on behalf of the United States. And I still have a clipping from The Times of November 1972, in which my then colleague David Housego was reporting from Tehran that the shah had declared that Iran’s defensive frontiers extended beyond the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean!

In five years, the shah calculated, his arms build-up would make Iran the largest military power in the Middle East. The shah ruled with torture and executions, was crazed about the dangers of communism, and power-mad to the extent of celebrating his empire’s rule in 1971 with what he called “the biggest party on earth” in the ruins of Persepolis. How Trump would love to have been there.

Well, Macron may be able to turn himself into the “Great G7 Intermediary”, although all others who have tangled with Iran have been brought low by the experience. Think poor old Jimmy Carter, destroyed by the hostage-takers at the US embassy in Tehran. Think Reagan, almost brought low by Irangate. Think Colonel Oliver North. Or envoy Robert McFarlane. Or Terry Waite. Or Barack Obama, for that matter, his Iranian policy torn up by Trump.

In theory, what Macron is trying to do, if Le Monde has got it right, is persuade Trump to allow Iran’s principal petroleum importers to continue buying oil from the Islamic Republic. This includes Turkey, China, Japan, India and South Korea. In return, Iran would itself return to the original nuclear agreement. That’s the message Macron sent back to Tehran with Iran’s foreign minister, who airbussed into Biarritz for his briefest of meetings with the French president.

But what Macron is really doing – which is what almost every EU leader is doing – is trying to preserve the peace of the Middle East long enough for the Americans to elect a serious, intelligent, boring and moderately honest political leader to replace the mentally unbalanced and very dangerous current holder of the highest office in the US.

Well, good luck to the Americans. For at present, they are confronting not the lunatic rogue state which Messers Bolton and Pompeo have nightmared up for Trump, but a nation governed by bravely defiant, ruthless, and – yes – devious men. For Iranians understand America far better than Americans will ever understand Iran.

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What the New Yorker Got Wrong About Forests and Wildfires

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Photograph Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture – Public Domain

The New Yorker recently published an article titled Trailblazing plan to fight California Wildfires that contains misinformation. I’ve had many people ask me what I thought of the piece. Given the influential nature of the New Yorker, I decided to respond here.

The writing is good. There is much that is accurate about wildfire in the article, such as the problems with the Clean Act and how it limits prescribed burning. But in many ways, the piece serves as propaganda for the Forest Service and its logging agenda.

The main problem is that the author relied upon a limited number of sources for her article, and all the sources are pro logging/thinning the forests. The on-going propaganda promoted by the Forest Service is that large fires are “catastrophic” and such blazes are demonized to justify a pro-logging agenda. One would not know that many of the statements in her article are either vigorously debated in fire ecology circles with no clear consensus.

For example, she boldly states that frequent low-intensity blazes can preclude large fires. But there are counter-arguments and research that challenges such assertions which were never mentioned. While prescribed burning and thinning may “appear” to reduce fire spread under low to moderate fire weather conditions, there is a wealth of evidence that these management prescriptions usually fail in the face of fires burning under extreme fire weather conditions.

More than 200 preeminent scientists signed a letter to Congress finding that proposed solutions to wildfire like thinning forests are ineffective and short-lived.

To quote from the scientists’ letter:

“Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity…However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning, and, in some cases, burn hundreds or thousands of acres in just a few days.”

The letter goes on to say:

“Thinning large trees, including overstory trees in a stand, can increase the rate of fire spread by opening up the forest to increased wind velocity, damage soils, introduce invasive species that increase flammable understory vegetation, and impact wildlife habitat.”

There are sidebars that scientists working at Forest Service Research Stations or professors in forestry schools must observe if they want to keep their jobs and/or funding. These individuals do not fudge the data, but they start with specific questions and assumptions that beget certain conclusions.

For example, in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science “Adapt to more wildfire in western North American forests as climate changes” the authors concluded: “the effectiveness of this approach (logging and burning) at broad scales is limited. Mechanical fuels treatments on US federal lands over the last 15 y (2001–2015) totaled almost 7 million ha (Forests and Rangelands), but the annual area burned has continued to set records. Regionally, the area treated has little relationship to trends in the area burned, which is influenced primarily by patterns of drought and warming.”

The author of the New Yorker piece apparently is unaware of these nuances, nor did she consult with any of the many scientists who come to differing conclusions about the effectiveness of prescribed burning and thinning.

All of the people she interviewed are part of the “school” that attributes large fires to past “fire suppression” which they assert has led to “fuel build-ups”.

In her opening few paragraphs, the author describes a prescribed burn where people purposefully light fires under conditions where the fires are likely to remain small and “controlled”.

The author suggests that if we had more use of prescribed burns, large so-called “mega fires” would be snuffed out by a lack of fuel. Problem solved.

She then goes on to describe “mega fires” as “uncontrollable”. And she notes that the resulting “the cinder-strewn moonscape that mega fires leave behind is unlikely to grow back as forest.” She says the forest is “incinerated.”

So the first problem with the article occurs in the first few paragraphs where death and doom are used to describe what are large blazes. The term “mega fire” is itself pejorative suggesting that large blazes are somehow out of the ordinary or unusual and destructive. By contrast logging the forest is called “restoration.”

Never mind that high severity and the snag forests that result from them have some of the highest biodiversity in the West. They are hardly “moonscapes”.

This is due in part to the fact that most fires burn in are a mosaic of fire severity. You tend to have a quilt like patches of burned to lightly burned areas mixed with more severity burned areas. As a result, there is usually plenty plant regeneration after a blaze though it may be flowers, grasses and shrubs or different species like aspen or oaks that are favored by the opening of the forest canopy. No matter what grows back, it is not a “moonscape” for long.

Secondly, even in high severity fires, most of the tree boles remain after the blaze. They are hardly “incinerated.” Several studies suggest only around 3% of mature trees are consumed in a blaze, which is why we have snags remaining.

Furthermore, though fuels due to fire suppression might be an issue in a few specific forest types—predominately ponderosa pine forests—most of the vegetation in California as well as the rest of the West is not ponderosa pine and is characterized by long fire rotations.

For example, much of California is covered with chaparral. Chaparral tends to have long fire rotations up to a hundred years or more. And when this plant type burns, it does so naturally at high severity. Fire suppression does not influence wildfires in chaparral. Indeed, most of the larger recent fires that have burned in California are largely in chaparral ecosystems including the Thomas Fire by Santa Barbara, the Tubbs Fire by Santa Rosa, and so on.

Most of the large fires we are witnessing today are a consequence of climate change and natural climate variation, not a “disastrous buildup of forest density” as the author and her sources suggest.

First, the idea that areas with a lot of fuels are more prone to high severity fires can be challenged both scientifically and logically. The highest biomass on the West Coast is in the coastal forests of Oregon and Washington. Despite the abundance of fuels, these forests seldom burn. If fuels were the most important reason for large fires, we would expect these areas to be the center of so-called “mega fires.”

In addition, any number of studies have shown that areas that are “actively managed” (meaning logged) whether it is private timberlands or public forest tend to burn at higher severity than protected landscape where presumably the fuels are greatest.

One study that reviewed 1500 blazes around the West found the highest severity fires were in managed logged landscapes while parks and wilderness areas where there is no “active” management tended have lower severity blazes.

If you have drought, low humidity, high temperatures and most importantly, you have large fires. Since the canopy of dense forests provides shading and thus cooling of the forest floor, and also slows down wind penetration, wildfires are often slowed when they enter an old growth forest stand. By contrast, thinning the forest opens the stand to greater solar penetration (drying) and greater wind penetration, which can “fan” flames.

Keep in mind the 1910 Big Burn that raced across some 3-3.5 million acres of Idaho and western Montana occurred long before there was a “fire suppression” to create “excessive fuel.”

The author repeats the often-heard phrase that “a century’s worth of fire suppression” has created large fuel build-ups. This assertion fails to acknowledge that much of the last century between the late 1930s through the early 1980s was cool and moist due to natural climate variation. Indeed, in the 1970s there were fears that a new Ice Age might be upon us.

What happens when the climate is cool and moist? First, you get few ignitions. Second, the burns that do start, do not spread rapidly. Third, you have favorable conditions for tree germination and establishment which in turn leads to “denser” forests.

Furthermore, back in the early 1900s, all fire suppression was done by guys riding mules through what is largely wilderness. To suggest that this was an effective fire fighting force beggars the imagination. It was only after the advent of helicopters, smoke jumpers, and modern fire fighting equipment that one might be able to suggest fire suppression had a potential role in slowing fires.

But even this is hard to believe. Was there that much less fuel in 1987 in Yellowstone National Park than in 1988 when more than 1.2 million acres burned in the ecosystem? And why could firefighters control fires prior to 1988, but suddenly the same equipment, including at one point more than 10,000 firefighters failed to contain the blazes? Why did the fires suddenly stop on September 11th when it snowed?

All this is ignored by the advocates of the “century of fire suppression” proponents.

The idea that Indians burned most of the California landscape and thus precluded large blazes is another mythology she incorporated in her essay. For one thing, some research has found that Indian burning, to the degree, that it did occur, did not add significantly to the total acreage that burns naturally. Yes, in the immediate area around villages, and other high use areas, Indian burning likely exceeded the natural background fire.

Then as now, the majority of all acreage burns only when climate/weather conditions are favorable for fire spread. For instance, some 95-99% of all fires seldom burn more than 1-5 acres before they self-extinguish. In other words, whether a fire is started by lightning or humans, most fires do not spread very far.

If, however, the right conditions exist for fire spread, particularly if the wind is blowing hard, you will get a large blaze. That is why most of all acreage burned annually in the West is due to a very small number of blazes that occur during “extreme fire weather” conditions. If you don’t have these conditions, you don’t get a large blaze.

We have evolutionary evidence for this situation. For example, take sagebrush ecosystems. Most sage species must regenerate from seeds. The latest science suggests sagebrush burns anywhere from 50-400 fire rotations. If Indians were burning sagebrush ecosystems every few years as some suggest, there would be no sagebrush landscapes. And there would be no sagebrush obligate species like sage grouse, pygmy rabbits, sage sparrows and the like.

At the other end of the spectrum, higher elevation forests of spruce, fir, and mountain hemlock also burn infrequently, often hundreds of years between significant blazes, but when they do, they often burn at high severity as well.

She finishes up her piece by describing how allowing fires to burn, and/or thinning can result in higher water flows from the Sierra Nevada. A review of the assumptions by Chris Frissell and John Rhodes The High Costs and Low Benefits of Attempting to Increase Water Yield by Forest Removal in the Sierra Nevada  found that while there might be modestly higher flows in high snow years, in drought years, there was little extra water. In other words, at the time when you might want more water flows, you are unlikely to see it. Regrowth of vegetation promoted by forest removal will suck up much of the expected additional flows and countering this effect would require clearing at least 25% of a watershed every ten years—an expensive and generally impossible task.

What is obvious to anyone familiar with the scientific literature on wildfire is that while the author dutifully and accurately reported on the opinions and work of her sources, she did not realize that much of what she reported is contested or countered by other scientists and sources.

While permitting more wildfires to burn in remote areas is a positive outcome of our understanding of the important role of wildfire in forest ecology, the idea that massive thinning and burning can preclude large fires is delusional. In the end, the focus should be on reducing the vulnerability of homes and cities to fires–and this starts at the home and works outward–and preventing the construction of homes in the “fire plain”. Unfortunately, the article gives the impression that all that is needed is more management of our forests.

The post What the New Yorker Got Wrong About Forests and Wildfires appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

James Comey, Whistleblower

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Photograph Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation – Public Domain

Former FBI director James Comey has been criticized once again for violating FBI guidelines in handling official matters.  He was pilloried for his handling of Hillary Clinton’s violations of security practices as secretary of state, and now for revealing Donald Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice.  Although Comey believed he was acting in the best interests of the nation on both occasions, there is no argument that Comey did violate the FBI’s internal regulations.  On both occasions, he was calling attention to illegal and possibly criminal behavior by Clinton and Trump.

Former DoJ spokesman Matthew Miller noted that the charges against Comey would be similar to issuing a speeding ticket to a fire truck for rushing to a fire.  As a former whistleblower, I can testify to the fact that it becomes necessary to go public with charges of malfeasance when there are no political institutions willing to take up the cudgel in the name of oversight.

Comey is no stranger to controversy.  In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed a secret presidential finding to allow the National Security Agency to create a surveillance program that violated the constitutional rights of American citizens.  NSA’s actions exceeded the authorization from the White House, and it was Comey who challenged President Bush and NSA director Michael Hayden to prevent reauthorization of the program without congressional approval.  Comey told the president that the Department of Justice “can’t certify the legality” of the program.  Comey then threatened to resign and convinced the president that he had “been badly misled by your staff.”

Comey told Vice President Dick Cheney that the surveillance memorandum was “so bad as to be invalid” and that “no lawyer could rely upon it.”  Cheney’s villainous lawyer, David Addington, interjected “I’m a lawyer” and “I relied upon it.”  Comey responded “No good lawyer.”

A year later, Comey formally withdrew the DoJ legal opinions that permitted the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct its unconscionable and sadistic program of torture and abuse.  Comey knew that the DoJ had made serious legal mistakes in advising the president about the interrogation practices, which sanctioned unconstitutional behavior.  Just as the NSA exceeded what the DoJ had sanctioned regarding surveillance, the CIA exceeded DoJ authorities in conducting sadistic torture and abuse.  Comey forced the DoJ to fix its errors.

Comey was also lambasted for his leadership of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.  Comey broke with tradition in his handling of the matter, but Clinton had been arrogant and deceitful in her efforts to skirt rules for the handling of sensitive classified information as well as rules for the safekeeping of government records.  A double standard allowed the secretary of state to get away with behavior that could have sent a lesser official to jail.

Nevertheless, so-called liberals in the mainstream media maligned Comey and his important book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.”  Leading oped writers in the New York Times such as Charles Blow and Frank Bruni were particularly scathing.  Blow charged that neither Comey nor Trump should be held in high esteem and that both men have “raging egos and questionable motives.”  Bruni concluded that watching Comey promote his book is “to see him descend” and that Comey has “joined Trump almost as much as he’s defying him.”  Of course, Blow and Bruni never faced the kind of challenges and threats to U.S. governance that Comey faced over a fifteen-year period as an official at the DoJ and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In my 42 years of federal service, I never encountered anyone more willing to challenge both presidents and cabinet officers than James Comey.  He was a public servant in the best sense of that term, challenging the unconscionable decision making of Presidents Bush and Trump and filling the void created by two inept attorneys general, Alberto Gonzales and Loretta Lynch.  There is no better example of genuine ethical leadership than Comey’s in his role as whistleblower.

Over the past two decades, the administrations of Bush, Obama, and  Trump have pushed back against the influence and powers of the statutory Inspector General at the CIA as well as the Offices of the Inspector General at key national security agencies.  Senior officials at the CIA have been particularly critical of IG reports that were critical of the agency’s role in the 9/11 intelligence failure, the conduct of torture and abuse, and the coverup of the 2000 downing of a missionary plane that killed innocent civilians in Peru.  The Senate intelligence committee could not have issued its authoritative report on the CIA’s torture program without the research and analysis conducted by the Office of the Inspector General over a five-year period.

The mainstream media, moreover, can’t fulfill its important role of investigative journalism without the key role played by whistleblowers.  The overuse of government secrecy has already limited debate on national security policy, depriving citizens of information needed to participate effectively in much needed political debate.  If Comey could have delivered his memoranda to aggressive congressional oversight committees or to an independent Department of Justice, then perhaps he would not have found it necessary to keep government documents at home or to engineer the release of some of their contents to the news media.  As a result of Comey’s willingness to take risks to tell truth to power, we are all in his debt.


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Democracy Needs Unions

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Photograph Source: Labour union demonstrators held at bay by soldiers during the 1912 Lawrence textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts – Public Domain

You deserve to have a say in matters that affect you. Everyone does. That’s democracy.

This shouldn’t change when you go to work.

Democratic rights in the workplace — including the right to form a union, and the power to speak up about workplace issues — go hand in hand with a democratic society. But for decades now, those rights have been under assault.

This Labor Day, it’s time we fight to restore them.

Make no mistake: By whittling away at workers’ right to a voice at work, right-wing corporate activists have also been able to curtail workers’ voices at the ballot box, too.

Unionized workers vote at higher rates than non-union workers. States that have adopted so-called “right to work” laws to undermine unions have seen a net decline in turnout.

That’s exactly why corporate lobbyists and their political cronies push such laws — it’s part of their strategy to weaken support for popular proposals that help working people, from higher minimum wages to stronger social insurance programs.

These efforts work hand in hand with voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other efforts to undermine voting rights — as well as with “carve-outs” to labor laws, which exclude categories of workers like farm and domestic workers. Together these abuses disenfranchise workers and lock in poverty wages.

We’ve seen what happens when huge corporations, and the politicians beholden to them, wield all the political power.

They roll back government oversight so companies can engage in dangerous — even deadly — workplace practices. They widen tax loopholes so that companies that operate in our backyards don’t contribute to the upkeep of our communities. And they make corporations “people” with democratic rights far greater than those of actual human beings.

Then they illegally retaliate against workers who try to join together for change. They threaten mass layoffs and the decimation of communities. From the moment a person is hired, she’s told she’s replaceable and compelled to sign away her rights, leaving her on her own against an all-powerful boss.

But increasingly, working people are fighting back.

Around the nation, worker activists are urging lawmakers to prohibit employers from firing people in retaliation for trying to improve their own workplaces. They’re calling for an end to longstanding racist exclusions of caregivers and agricultural workers from labor protections. And, from poultry plants to commercial banks, they’re blowing the whistle on dangerous employer practices that hurt workers and consumers alike.

Working people are joining together to demand a more just economy in other ways, too.

From Walmart workers walking off the job to protest guns sales following the El Paso massacre, to adjunct professors warning that poverty wages affect the quality in the classroom, workers are protecting our democracy.

When call center workers in Mississippi draw attention to low wages and high turnover in critical federal services, andemployees of the furnishing company Wayfair walk out to protest the inhumane treatment of immigrants at the border, they’re reminding us of our civic responsibilities.

When teachers fill streets and statehouses to raise the specter of generational harm from underfunded schools, and museum employees lift the veil on pay inequality in arts institutions, they highlight the permanent damage to our country if worker voices are silenced.

Restoring worker power isn’t just about restoring the right to unionize. It’s about balancing one-sided corporate control with workplace democracy.

Labor Day and the Fourth of July may be separated by several weeks, but the values they embody are deeply intertwined. If we truly want justice, domestic tranquility, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty, we must allow democracy to flourish in the workplace as well as at the ballot box.

Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

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From Trump Tower to Dictatorial Trump Power Over Law

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Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Donald Trump is “dumb as a rock” (to use his phrase) when it comes to the programs and the policies of the federal government agencies over which he is allegedly presiding. However, when it comes to defending and expanding his own political power, Trump is shameless and profoundly cunning.

Trump turns accurate appraisals of himself into accusations that he levies at others. Earlier this month, he questioned whether Joe Biden “is mentally fit to be president.” (Read more here)Trump regularly turns appraisals of himself into accusations against others.

But Trump has found way to spread his toxicity beyond his lying tweets. He has carefully developed formidable barricades to shield himself from the gathering storm regarding his countless impeachable offenses and other serious misbehaviors.

Trump’s remarks, decisions, and asides reveal his plans to stay in office. Trump heaps praise and extra funding on the military. In his travels, Trump likewise incessantly praises the police regardless of the situations there. Trump has openly said these constituencies are the core foundation against his adversaries that will keep him in office. His White House will keep the military and the police very well endowed.

He also makes sure that big business is happy with him. Some of the bosses are getting anxious about the uncertainty associated with Trump’s use of tariffs and his caustic remarks about leaders of the countries where U.S. companies do business. However, Trump knows that as long as he cuts corporate taxes; deregulates health, safety, and economic requirements on Wall Street; and continues the crony capitalism of subsidies, handouts, and bailouts; the corporate bosses will continue to pay obeisance to Trump.

Manipulating the mass media is child’s play for Trump. He taunts them about how they have to give him top billing because of the profitable ratings his performances brings them. Some in the mass media, nonetheless, expose his wrongdoing with thorough features. Trump, though irritated, ignores these exposés and repels them like water off a duck’s back. It’s all “fake news,” he shouts. His approval polls, though lower than previous presidents, stay firm. So far Trump has faced no real consequences from the revelations of his misdeeds.

The courts, meanwhile, are Donald’s Trump card for endless delays. Who has been sued as president more than Trump? Over two and a half years into his term, litigation against Trump grinds on. Nobody knows how long these court actions will take, what with Trump’s delay tactics and appeals. The top appeal is to the Supreme Court which he believes is 5 to 4 for him on just about everything relating to runaway presidential power and immunities. Trump has appointed 146 judges while in office, including two Supreme Court justices. Trump’s chosen Supreme Court justices are partisan actors who will suit his purposes nicely—it is as if they came from “central casting” for him. Trump has declared unlimited presidential pardon powers, musing that he could even pardon himself.

Labor unions are another big joke to Trump. As they decline, Trump reminds the pro-Democratic Party union leaders that many of their rank and file members voted for him. A troublingly large minority of union workers—over a third— defected to Trump’s camp in 2016, enough to make the union leaders skittish about seriously confronting him.

That leaves the Congress with which he toys. The Republicans are frightened chickens in a coop, peering out at the insatiable Fox. When they look back at their place in history, they’ll have to squint. Sycophants all, except for the late Rep. Walter Jones and Rep. Justin Amash.

As for the Democrats, Trump is blocking subpoenas and orders for witnesses to testify. Trump is also turning down major demands for documents from several House Congressional Committees. Exercising their constitutional authority to oversee the executive branch, the Committee Chairs are filing one law suit after another. Trump laughs and tells his attorneys to keep stonewalling and appealing—which can mean years. That’s how he operated during his sordid failed business career.

Donald Trump, selected by the Electoral College, is daring the Democrats to impeach him. He knows Democrats are divided and can use the Republican dominated Senate as an excuse for inaction. Of course impeachment is a constitutional duty for the House, not a simple political calculation. It is certainly warranted for the most impeachable president in American history.

Trump is thumbing his nose at Democrats daily, blocking oversight, allocating appropriated funds by executive dictate, brazenly freezing enforcement the laws or revoking regulations that protect the health, safety, and economic wellbeing of the American people, enriching himself through emoluments, and also casting aside the Constitution and the rule of law regarding his military and foreign policy aggressions.

Trump has neutralized our country’s checks and balances and separation of powers, including judicial accountability. He adds to his monarchal presidency by unleashing the Republican Party’s suppression of the vote and other electoral shenanigans.

If the law ever catches up to Trump, he has many toadies who are willing to “wag the dog” distractions. They are his war-hawk on steroids, national security advisor lawless John Bolton and the militaristic Secretary of State Michael Pompeo who travels the world threatening half of it. The new Secretary of Defense, from the Raytheon Corporation, presents no restraint in contrast to his predecessor Jim Mattis, cashiered by Trump.

If Trump wins, America loses. The outcome is up to you in November 2020. Be alert and prepared for tumultuous upheavals should Trump lose by a narrow margin.

The post From Trump Tower to Dictatorial Trump Power Over Law appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Justifications for Inequality: The Neuroses of Kochland

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One of the brothers Koch, David, has shuffled off this mortal coil, and the pious few looking at his passing may well think he is making it tough for camels passing through needles. As part of the Brothers Koch, he presided over a corporate empire that did its pinching best to wrest control from the purses of public accountability in the US republic. At his death, he was the eleventh richest person on the planet, on par with his dominant brother, Charles.

David K, however, went beyond the narrower spending interests of brother Charles, the one with the sharpest of eyes for business who elevated the family’s Wichita oil company into a mammoth entity worth $110 billion.

The pet projects of right wing think tanks and campaign funding for libertarian causes did interest David, but he wished for more. Medicine and the arts tickled his interest, turning him into a philanthropist. His particular funding-from-high approach was something that was bound to earn praise in some cases: the powerful can be benevolent to the arts and various good causes, even if it comes with a presumption of innate inequality. Take the New York ballet, which can count some $100 million in donations from the family, and such institutions as the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Such recipients spent little time philosophising about the origins of the loot. As President Theodore Roosevelt said dismissively of John D. Rockefeller’s establishment of a foundation to manage and disseminate his wealth, “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”

It was precisely such gestures that made David Koch a difficult one to pin down, at least for a certain breed of conservative. Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review, for instance, has suggested that this particular Koch brother could not be meaningfully slotted into a niche of blue-blood conservatism, being himself “a supporter of gay rights, abortion rights, drug legalisation, and much else that does not fit very comfortably on the current ‘right wing’ agenda”.

Politics generates its own distinct tics; Charles and David were left heavy with the anti-socialist sentiments of their bruising father, Fred, who supervised the building of refineries in a Soviet Union hungry for petroleum engineering. This was a temporary measure: when the Soviets felt competent enough to proceed without his help, Fred Koch wound his disgruntled way to a more accommodating Nazi Germany, where his firm, Winkler-Koch, prospered from 1934. (This latter point is not mentioned on the website of an organisation Fred joined as an early national council member, The John Birch Society.)

A form of natural selection in the family was encouraged, with Charles edging David out in the pecking order. David would find his way. MIT engineering, basketball for which he showed more than an aptitude for, and presidency of Koch Engineering, and executive vice-president of Koch Industries in 1981. While brother Charles always took primary polling in building the empire, turning Fred’s bricks into family marble, it was David who proved a consistent ally in subsequent family disputes, notably against mischievous brother Bill.

To study the Kochs is to study the US republic as an ailing patient saddled with profound neuroses. To that end, few studies on the Kochs, or any other US corporation, match Christopher Leonard’s Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America. “The Koch brothers derived their wealth through a patient, long-term strategy of seizing opportunities in complex and often opaque corners of the economic system.” That toenail growing patience was underpinned by an ideological observance of free-market economy, specifically those of the Austrian school. Out of this worship of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek came Market-Based Management, not much short of a cult’s affirmation.

The name Koch is associated with the realisation of political platforms and the disruption of others. The same year David found himself running as vice-president, Richard Fink, long considered the steering force of the “Kochtopus”, suggested a three stage process in the field of activism. The idea would be germinated by intellectual hothouses and allowed to flourish. Selected think tanks would treat these ideas as a convertible and exportable commodity: the activists and advocacy groups, suitably bankrolled with Koch cash, would fashion such raw material, using it to pressure elected officials.

As Jane Mayer, a keen student of the Koch phenomenon has noted, the brothers “built a kind of an assembly line to manufacture political change.” In Dark Money, she would call it “a libertarian production line, waiting only to be bought, assembled and switched on.” Some conservatives preferred to simply see such operating means with gushing envy: the Kochs, according to an admiring Jim Geraghty, were engaged in “effective activism”, targeting “state legislatures, local tax initiatives and the political races that aren’t ‘sexy’.”

That production line had its favourite targets: the supposedly galloping away power of the state (by the end of the 1970s, abolishing the Energy Department had become a platform of the Libertarian Party), unwanted regulations, and fetters on corporate behaviour. In recent years, a clearer picture of the Koch contribution to a big ticket issue – climate change denial – has emerged. This has been characterised by an insatiable, and uninterrupted hunger, for natural resources. As David Koch explained to the Society of Petroleum Engineers in Alaska in 1980, the US, “in its own self-interest should be actively promoting development of natural resources in Alaska and assisting in placing more land in private ownership.” Good for Koch; good for the United States.

In 1991, a coterie of individuals who have become part of the usual suspect list of climate change scepticism, underpinned by the need for continued environmental exploitation, gathered at a Cato conference titled “Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?” The theme was clear enough: plunder as there was no danger of perishing; extract as they was no fear of environmental degradation. Meteorologist Richard S. Lindzen was a headline act, dismissing global warming as having “very little evidence at all”. According to Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigation Center, such gatherings proved indispensable in stifling any chances of a carbon tax.

In 1980, David Koch attempted a foray into US politics, an effort to come from behind the screen of power. In a sense, it seemed to contradict the secrecy and opacity of the Koch modus operandi: to influence US politics was to do so in the foggy background of assiduously gathered intelligence, targeted donations and backroom manipulations. Running as US vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, with Ed Clark as the mainstay, did not come to much: the brothers ultimately knew that their mark would be best made as puppet masters rather than openly elected puppets. Inequality, smoothed by various disgorges of largesse, would always be key.

Perhaps unwittingly, the statement from the family on David’s passing suggested the triumph of a certain type of raw American value, distant, unattainable, and ultimately hostile to the commonweal. Life is nasty, brutish and short, but it has the softening of moneyed self-interest. “David liked to say that a combination of brilliant doctors, state-of-the-art medications and his own stubbornness kept the cancer at bay.” How good of him, and his family, to embrace a view of the evils of state-sponsored health care and welfare; to the rich go the lecturing spoils.

Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor and semantic gymnast for President Donald Trump, was keen to do his bit of weeding of negative opinions. “David Koch,” he peevishly tweeted at Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, “was a good man who had a different ideology than you or to some extent me. But it’s cruel to attack a dead man who was doing what he believed was best for our country. Stop demonizing.”

The case here is less one of demonization than sorrow. The success of Koch Industries, and even taking into account David’s calculatingly philanthropic streak, has signalled a failure, and failing, of the US republic. The citizen has been anatomised; the corporation reigns with impunity. Charles, and his philosophy, remains ascendant.


The post Justifications for Inequality: The Neuroses of Kochland appeared first on CounterPunch.org.


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