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Congress Warns of Economic Chaos as Facebook Details Plans for Its Own Currency

Mother Jones Magazine -

On Wednesday, representatives on the House Financial Services Committee peppered a Facebook executive with questions about Libra, the social media giant’s proposed cryptocurrency.

Democrats and several Republicans raised repeated concerns about whether Facebook’s plans mark a dangerous corporate overreach that would impede government’s ability to oversee monetary policy. They asked David Marcus, the CEO of Calibra, the Facebook subsidiary slated to launch the currency and service users digital wallets, to commit to a moratorium until congressional and regulatory concerns about the currency are resolved. Marcus repeatedly refused to make this promise, instead offering a commitment not to launch Libra until “we have addressed all concerns fully.”

Democrats raise questions about replacing government-run monetary systems with a new order overseen by private corporations.

Facebook announced plans for Libra in June, explaining that it would be available to purchase and use through Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and in a standalone app. The currency is set to be governed by a nonprofit Libra Association, based in Switzerland, consisting of 28 member companies across the tech and finance sectors including Calibra, along with Uber, Lyft, Paypal, Visa, and Mastercard. The association hopes to expand to 100 member companies before the currency’s slated 2020 launch.

This month, five leading Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee sent a letter to Facebook expressing grave concerns over how the currency could hurt the financial system and American consumers. The letter raises questions about the broader impact of replacing or augmenting a public function—government-run monetary systems—with a new order overseen by private corporations. They asked Facebook and Calibra to stop until further government oversight could be completed.

“It appears that these products may lend themselves to an entirely new global financial system that is based out of Switzerland and intended to rival U.S. monetary policy and the dollar,” they wrote. “This raises serious privacy, trading, national security, and monetary policy concerns for not only Facebook’s over 2 billion users, but also for investors, consumers, and the broader global economy.”

At the hearing, several lawmakers reiterated questions about Libra’s potential to interfere with US monetary policy. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) told Marcus point blank that Facebook should not launch Libra. “The creation of a new currency is a core government function and should be left to democratically accountable institutions,” she said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Marcus several times if he thought currency should be a public good. She also compared Libra to company scrip, private currencies historically used to pay workers, often lumber workers or coal miners, that allowed companies to take control of pricing in towns where many shops were company run.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) compared Libra to so-called wildcat banks—poorly regulated rural banks that in the 1800s issued their own currencies that often became worthless, and that were later outlawed. “Aren’t you creating yesterday’s problem tomorrow?” Porter asked. Marcus responded that Libra will adhere to the proper regulators. But when asked by Porter, Marcus was unable to clarify which regulator he foresaw overseeing the currency.

“Tell me how Libra will not undermine sovereign currencies and the power of central banks? Or is…the very point to undermine central bakers and to provide greater freedom away from central banking?” asked Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) Marcus responded to this question and others like it by assuring the representatives that Facebook’s goal is not to compete with the dollar or other global currencies, but stopped short of agreeing that currency should remain a public function.

“Currency is a core government function and should be left to democratically accountable institutions.”

In their letter to Facebook ahead of Wednesday’s hearings, House Democrats wrote that the company had provided insufficient information on how, absent the regulatory and security frameworks applied to regular banks and financial actors, the tech company will protect Libra users’ assets. “Those using Facebook’s digital wallet—storing potentially trillions of dollars without depository insurance—also may become unique targets for hackers,” they noted, adding that hackers have stolen billions from other cryptocurrency exchanges. “If products and services like these are left improperly regulated and without sufficient oversight, they could pose systemic risks that endanger U.S. and global financial stability.”

In Wednesday’s hearing, a number of representatives echoed concerns about Facebook’s ability to safely develop and secure a digital currency, especially as the tech giant remains under federal scrutiny for mishandling user data during the 2016 presidential election.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) claimed that Libra could do more damage to the country’s security than the attacks of September 11, 2001, citing research that’s shown digital currency to be popular with “nefarious operations.” By allowing for accounts to be created with a unique online key, instead of being linked to a clear personal identity, Libra, Sherman said, “will provide privacy to drug dealers, human traffickers, terrorists, tax evaders, and sanctions evaders.” He warned of future terrorist attacks on the US being financed through the currency.

Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas) told Marcus that while he is not opposed to innovation, “there is a level of distrust with Facebook” among consumers “because of some of the things that have taken place over the last year.” He asked Marcus whether Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, would publicly testify in Congress about this currency. Marcus would not commit to any testimony by Zuckerberg on Libra.

While the hearing’s strongest criticism came from House Democrats, they are far from alone in their concern that Libra needs more investigation and oversight before it can launch. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, nominated by Trump in November 2017, told the House Financial Services Committee earlier this month that while the Fed supports “responsible innovation” in the financial services industry, Libra “raises many serious concerns regarding privacy, money-laundering, consumer protection, and financial stability.” He said plans to launch the currency should be put on hold until these concerns could “be thoroughly and publicly addressed.”

Calibra’s Marcus also appeared before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday, where he faced usually more muted questioning. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md), compared the Libra Association to “Spectre”—the international criminal and surveillance organization from the James Bond movies.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has said that Libra “raises many serious concerns.”

Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee this week also unveiled a draft of the “Keep Big Tech Out Of Finance Act,” a bill that would ban tech companies with at least $25 billion in revenue from operating as financial institutions or issuing digital currencies. The proposed fine for violating these rules would be $1 million per day.

Facebook and its partners have pitched Libra as being a boon for financial inclusion and equity, highlighting its intention to create a “global currency” that “empowers billions of people.” The Facebook press release announcing Libra pointed out limits to financial access in developing countries, including citizens and small businesses lacking banking accounts and lines of credit. “This is the challenge we’re hoping to address with Calibra,” the release noted.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Reps. Rashida Tlaid and Ayanna Pressley both raised concerns about how the Libra Association’s member companies—which each pay at least $10 million to join—would represent the unbanked populations that Facebook is purporting to help with Libra.

Pressley cited reports that half of all adults who lack bank accounts live in seven countries: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Pakistan. She asked Marcus if any of the Libra Association’s partner organizations are based in these countries. Marcus said they were not, but that it would seek more representation in its membership as the association works up to 100 member companies.

For all of Libra’s claims to be empowering those who lack banking access, some experts see Libra as, instead, a Facebook effort to reestablish the company’s trusted role in users lives after a year marked by revelations about failing to keep information safe. Some 15 million users have ditched Facebook over the last two years. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission levied a $5 billion fine on Facebook for its mishandling of user data after an investigation into how political strategy firm Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest the private information of more than 50 million Facebook users for political purposes. Wharton professor Kevin Werbach argued in a New York Times op-ed last month that a successful digital currency might transform perceptions of the company.

“Privacy, civic discourse and even democracy were crushed beneath the wheels as Facebook rolled toward global domination. Now it faces angry legislators around the world, huge fines, hostile investigations and punitive regulations aiming to rein it in,” he wrote. “Libra is the last, best hope to re-establish trust between Facebook and the world.”

10 Ways Andrew Wheeler Has Decimated the EPA in Just 1 Year

TruthDig.com News -

On July 8, President Trump hosted a White House event to unabashedly tout his truly abysmal environmental record. The following day, coincidentally, marked the one-year anniversary of Andrew Wheeler at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), first as acting administrator and then as administrator after the Senate confirmed him in late February.

The good news, if there is any, is that Wheeler is an Eagle Scout compared to his ethically challenged predecessor, Scott Pruitt. The bad news is, as predicted, Wheeler has been more effective than Pruitt in rolling back and eliminating EPA safeguards.

My organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has compiled a list of 80 Trump administration attacks on science since taking office, and Wheeler has been the driving force behind many of them. Below are 10 of the more egregious ways he has undermined the EPA’s time-honored role to protect public health and the environment so far.

  1. Sidelined Scientists

Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, has taken a number of steps to systematically reduce the role of scientists in the agency’s policymaking process. Last fall, for example, he eliminated the agency’s Office of the Science Advisor, which counseled the EPA administrator on research supporting health and environmental standards, and placed the head of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave. He also disbanded a 20-member scientific advisory committee on particulate matter, or soot; failed to convene a similar panel on ozone; and packed a seven-member advisory committee on air quality standards with industry-friendly participants.

  1. Proposed to Restrict the Use of Scientific Data

Claiming his intent is to increase “transparency,” Wheeler is promoting a rule Pruitt proposed that would dramatically limit the scientific studies the agency considers when developing health standards. If adopted, the rule would restrict the use of scientific studies in EPA decisions if the underlying data are not public and reproducible, which would disqualify many epidemiological and other health studies the EPA relies on to set science-based public safeguards. Given that EPA health standards often rely on studies that contain private patient information, as well as confidential business information that cannot be revealed, the rule would significantly hamper the agency’s ability to carry out its mission. Wheeler plans to finalize the rule sometime this year.

  1. Gutted the Coal Ash Rule

The first major rule Wheeler signed as acting administrator refuted his claim that he could fulfill President Trump’s directive to “clean up the air, clean up the water, and provide regulatory relief” at the same time. By rolling back the Obama-era coal ash rule, Wheeler provided regulatory relief to his old friend the coal industry by weakening environmental protections established in 2015 to clean up coal ash ponds, which are laced with toxic contaminants that leak into groundwater. The move was a top priority for coal baron Bob Murray, owner of Murray Energy, Wheeler’s most lucrative client when he worked for the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm.

Coal-fired power plants have been dumping this residue from burning coal into giant, unlined pits for decades. According to the EPA, there are more than 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, and a recent analysis by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found that 91 percent of the coal plants filing monitoring data required by the 2015 rule are polluting water with unsafe levels of toxic contaminants. Wheeler’s EPA says the new rule—which extends the deadline for closing some leaking ash ponds and allows states to suspend groundwater monitoring and set their own standards—will save utilities as much as $31 million. But the agency ignored the enormous costs of cancer and neurological and cardiovascular diseases linked to coal ash ingredients, which include arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury.

  1. Recommended Unsafe Levels of Drinking Water Contaminants

Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used in firefighting foam and a variety of nonstick, cleaning, packaging and other household products, have been linked to thyroid disease and kidney, liver, pancreatic and testicular cancer. According to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, these chemicals threaten the drinking water supplies of an estimated 19 million Americans. A 2018 Union of Concerned Scientists report, meanwhile, found that PFAS water contamination at 130 military bases across the country exceed the 11-parts-per-trillion safety threshold determined by the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Nearly two-thirds of the sites had contamination that was more than 100 times higher than the safe level.

In February, Wheeler announced the “first-ever nationwide action plan” to regulate PFAS chemicals in water, saying the agency would develop and set a limit for two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. During the announcement, he told reporters he believes the agency’s voluntary 70-part-per-trillion health-advisory level for the chemicals is “a safe level for drinking water,” despite the fact that this level is more than six times higher than what the Disease Registry considers safe.

While Wheeler slow-walks the EPA’s response, members of Congress have introduced at least a dozen bills to address PFAS contamination, and the Senate recently passed a defense bill that would require the EPA to set a science-based standard for PFAS in drinking water.

  1. Rolled Back Clean Water Act Protections

Clearing up a decade-long dispute over the scope of the Clean Water Act, the Obama EPA adopted a broad, science-based definition of the law that included protecting intermittent and ephemeral streams and wetlands that do not have surface water connections to other waterways. A 2015 EPA meta-analysis of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed studies concluded that even infrequently flowing small streams and isolated wetlands can affect “the integrity of downstream waters.” Trash them and that pollution could wind up in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and estuaries.

Regardless, Wheeler announced plans during a December telephone press briefing to reverse the Obama EPA definition of waters protected by the Clean Water Act, a thinly disguised gift to land developers and the agriculture industry. When asked what wetlands would no longer be protected, Wheeler replied, “We have not done … a detailed mapping of all the wetlands in the country.” Likewise, EPA Office of Water head David Ross—who represented industry clients against the EPA before joining the Trump administration—told reporters on the call that the agency had no idea how many streams would be dropped from Clean Water Act protection under the proposal.

In fact, Wheeler and Ross were well aware of the damage their new definition would do. At least 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands across the country would not be covered under their proposed definition, according to an internal 2017 slideshow prepared by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers and obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act.

  1. Suppressed an Inconvenient Formaldehyde Report

Last August, Wheeler disingenuously told a Senate committee that the EPA was holding up the release of a report on the risk of cancer from formaldehyde to confirm its veracity. “I am sure we will release it,” he said, “but I need to make sure that the science in the report is still accurate.”

In fact, the report—which concluded that formaldehyde can cause leukemia and nose and throat cancer—was completed by EPA scientists a year before Wheeler testified, according to a Senate investigation, and their conclusion was hardly a surprise. Both the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program have already classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.

The EPA’s review process normally takes 60 to 90 days. The formaldehyde report has been in limbo for at least a year and a half, a blatant giveaway to the American Chemistry Council, the U.S. chemical industry’s premier trade association, which has blocked tighter restrictions on formaldehyde for decades.

  1. Ignored EPA Scientists’ Advice to Ban Asbestos

Instead of heeding the advice of agency scientists and lawyers to follow the example of 55 other countries and ban asbestos completely, the EPA announced in April that it would tighten restrictions on asbestos—not ban it—despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its dangers. Manufacturers will be able to continue to use the substance if they obtain EPA approval.

Asbestos has not been produced in the United States since 2002, but is still imported for use in a wide range of commercial and consumer products, including auto brake components, roofing, vinyl floor tile, fire-resistant clothing, and cement pipes, sheets and shingles. One of the deadliest known carcinogens, asbestos kills nearly 40,000 Americans annually, mainly from lung cancer.

  1. Weakened the Mercury Emissions Rule

In late December, the EPA proposed to significantly weaken a rule restricting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by recalculating its costs and benefits. The Obama EPA, which issued the rule in 2011, estimated it would cost utilities $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually to install pollution controls and lead to $37 billion to $90 billion in health benefits by reducing not only mercury, a potent neurotoxin, but also sulfur dioxide and soot, thus preventing 130,000 asthma attacks, 4,700 heart attacks, and as many as 11,000 premature deaths. The Wheeler EPA ignored the “co-benefits” of limiting sulfur dioxide and soot, and flagrantly lowballed the health benefits of curbing mercury alone at only $4 million to $6 million annually.

Most utilities have already complied with the mercury rule at a fraction of the estimated cost, but health advocates fear that this new, industry-friendly accounting method, which makes it appear that the cost to polluters far outweigh the rule’s benefits, will set a precedent for the EPA to sabotage an array of other public health protections.

  1. Slammed Vehicle Emission Rules Into Reverse

Last August, the EPA and the Transportation Department issued a proposal to freeze vehicle tailpipe pollution and fuel efficiency standards, rolling back a 2012 Obama-era rule requiring automakers to boost passenger vehicle fuel economy to a fleetwide average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “Make Cars Great Again” published a few days before the two agencies announced their proposal, Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao charged that the Obama-era standards—the first to limit vehicle carbon emissions—are too burdensome for automakers and “raised the cost and decreased the supply of newer, safer vehicles.”

Parroting the Trump administration’s line of reasoning, Wheeler and Chao argued that fuel-efficient cars—which weigh less than gas-guzzlers—are not as safe, a contention that has been widely debunked. In fact, a 2017 study concluded that reducing the average weight of new vehicles could result in fewer traffic fatalities.

In any case, freezing the standards at 2020 levels would be hard on the planet, not to mention Americans’ wallets, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. It would result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040, amounting to 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone—the equivalent of the annual output of 43 average size coal-fired power plants. It also would cost drivers billions of dollars. In 2040 alone, they would have to pay an additional $55 billion to fill their gas tanks. Meanwhile, the design improvements automakers have made so far to meet the standards have already saved drivers more than $86 trillion at the pump since 2012, and off-the-shelf technological fixes, the Union of Concerned Scientists says, would enable automakers to meet the original 2025 target.

  1. Rescinded the Clean Power Plan

Perhaps Wheeler’s most damaging move to date came late last month when he signed a final rule to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have required coal-fired power plants to dramatically cut their carbon emissions. Yet another gift to the coal industry, Wheeler’s so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule grants states the authority to determine emissions standards but sets no targets, leaving them the option to do absolutely nothing.

Before Wheeler released the final rule, an April study in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that his draft version would boost carbon emissions in 18 states and the District of Columbia and increase sulfur dioxide emissions in 19 states. The EPA’s own analysis of the draft rule, meanwhile, found that the proposal could have led to as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 due to an increase in soot, and as many as 15,000 cases of upper respiratory problems.

Reversing Decades of Bipartisan Protections

If Wheeler truly cared about transparency, he would petition the Trump administration to change the name of his agency to “Every Polluter’s Ally.” In just 12 months, he has killed or weakened dozens of safeguards with the sole intention of bolstering polluting industries’ profit margins even after Congress slashed the corporate tax rate. As a result, millions of Americans will be drinking filthier water and breathing dirtier air, and more will suffer from serious diseases, according to his agency’s own accounting.

Wheeler and his predecessor Pruitt have sullied the bipartisan track record of one of the nation’s agencies entrusted with protecting public health and safety. So it is little wonder that three former EPA administrators who, notably, served under Republican presidents, recently sounded the alarm on Capitol Hill, urging legislators to step up their oversight of the agency and denouncing its attempts to hamstring science.

“There is no doubt in my mind that under the current administration the EPA is retreating from its historic mission to protect our environment and the health of the public from environmental hazards,” former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who served under President George W. Bush, stated in her written testimony for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “This administration, from the beginning, has made no secret of its intention to essentially dismantle the EPA…. Therefore, I urge this committee, in the strongest possible terms, to exercise Congress’s oversight responsibilities over the actions and direction of the EPA.”

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute, and originally published by Truthout.

Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The post 10 Ways Andrew Wheeler Has Decimated the EPA in Just 1 Year appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

‘Journalism Is Helping to Normalize the Concentration Camps’ - CounterSpin interview with Arun Gupta on immigration abuses

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -

Janine Jackson interviewed Arun Gupta on Trump’s concentration camps for the July 12, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: The horrific treatment inflicted intentionally by the state on people legally seeking asylum at the US southern border is not happening under cover of darkness. There has been powerful, brave journalism, bringing harrowing stories and images of the cruel conditions inside the concentration camps to light, some even detailing how hard the Trump administration is working to keep us from seeing what’s happening, or caring about it.

But connecting outrage and heartsickness to transformative action is an unfamiliar exercise for many Americans, in part because of elite media’s deliberate and invidious distinction between citizens (good) and activists (bad)—and, even more, their constant reassurance that ultimately, the system works.

As conversations devolve into rhetoric about whether this is really what America stands for, maybe it isn’t only the country’s history of atrocities that media could usefully remind us of, but its history of response to atrocities.

But whatever media do, for the majority of the public, whether concentration camps have a place in American life is not a question worthy of consideration. The only question is what to do now.

Our next guest is part of a new call to action on the issue. Longtime journalist Arun Gupta has written for The Intercept, the Guardian and numerous other outlets. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Arun Gupta.

Arun Gupta: Thanks for having me back, Janine.

No More Concentration Camps

JJ: Like I say, it isn’t that I don’t think people need to keep being informed, confronted even, with the realities, the specific dead-father-and-daughter-in the-river realities, of this horror show.

But I am a little tired of people saying that nobody’s doing anything, when it sounds like what they’re saying is, “How come I can’t just click on something and make this all stop?”

I’m a media critic, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for corporate media to connect whatever the most horrific news is to anything—not about how to debate it, but how to stop it. And I frankly just wonder, when reporters look back on this time, if they’re going to think that narrating the nightmare was the only responsible role that journalists could take.

So all of that said, what does the call to action—recently drafted by yourself with Juan Carlos Ruiz of the New Sanctuary Coalition, and signed by a growing list of social justice advocates—what does that call to action say? And how are you hoping that it will be used?

AG: What we’re trying to do is to highlight what is going on, that there is a lot of action going on. We’re calling on people to support the frontline communities who’ve really been in the lead, for years and decades, against this brutal system. The architecture really starts to come into place during the Clinton years, and then it starts to get just more and more repressive, the border gets more and more militarized, after September 11. And then the last decade or so, the rising anti-immigrant hysteria that has just really taken off under Donald Trump.

So there are all these different sorts of actions, in terms of the people who are protesting at these concentration camps near the border. There’s a campaign against tech companies who supply ICE and the Border Patrol with much of their infrastructure, their digital infrastructure, that is important; for instance, Amazon is selling them facial recognition technology.

People are also targeting the banks. Recently Bank of America said that they would no longer fund any companies in the private prison industry. And we’re seeing these new child influx centers being opened, which is costing something like $800 a day to house these children.

And, by the way, this is another one of the ways in which the story is the result of poor reporting. The Department of Health and Human Services recently had a dog-and-pony show where they invited in the media to see how great these child influx shelters are. And, in fact, the NPR reporter John Burnett talks about, these are like these self-contained little towns in the desert brush.

But the influx shelters are the direct result of the Trump administration’s policies, many of them which are illegal and criminal policies, that are resulting in the keeping of these children in these shelters. There should be absolutely no need for these shelters if the Trump administration was following the law, and if they weren’t inciting so much fear around the border issues.

But what we’re really calling for is to raise the level of general resistance. And what we’re hoping to see—many of the people who are involved in drafting the call are veterans of a lot of the biggest direct action and protest movements of the last 20 years. We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of the Battle in Seattle and the global justice movement, the Iraq anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter. These are moments where you have this inchoate mass outrage around an issue, and then a spark helps to set something off that coalesces that outrage into a movement in the real world, right, into a real mass movement.

Jewish News (7/5/19)

There’s been these great actions by a lot of Jewish activists recently, under the banner of Never Again, where they blockaded ICE facilities in New Jersey and Boston; they also blockaded the federal building in San Francisco, where Nancy Pelosi has her offices, because the Democrats just absolutely botched the recent immigration funding bill; they essentially are funding what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff called child abuse centers. They completely flubbed managing their own caucus in Congress.

So what we’re hoping is that something takes off and captures the public and media imagination, and then completely shifts the debate, the way that Occupy Wall Street completely shifted the debate from economic austerity to economic inequality, or the way that Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter shifted the debate to systemic police violence and killings of people of color, especially black Americans.

So we’re calling on that Occupy model or Seattle model that we’ve seen to self-organize and to find targets, and especially to follow the lead of the immigrant communities: Find the immigrant rights and frontline organizations, and work in conjunction with them, but then go after specific targets.

Something that may work is using nonviolent direct action tactics to disrupt ICE raids.  Trump is essentially threatening, once more, these mass raids on the weekend; I believe it’s actually July 14, which is ironic, because that’s Bastille Day, right? The day the French celebrate for tearing down the prison, this is when Trump wants to throw thousands of families who haven’t done anything wrong, except overstay a court order, he wants to tear these families apart and throw them in prison.

JJ: Yeah, well, I think many people are ready for big narrative-shifting, world-changing ideas. The urgency is such that people are not interested in half measures, or in rhetorical diversion. And I just want to draw you out for a moment and in terms of media, because as some journalists are braving logistical obstacles, outright intimidation and harassment to get these stories out, other journalists seem to be busy, as I would say, derailing themselves and their audiences with pretend serious questions, or should I say concerns, about language. And I want to ask you, what have you learned about traps laid by journalists, including—in fact, most emphatically—”sympathetic” journalists, when you try to talk about social action like this?

All Things Considered (7/10/19)

AG: It’s interesting, because when we launched the campaign, the Institute for Public Accuracy, which tries to get non-mainstream voices into the mainstream, they sent out a press release about this effort, and I pretty much immediately was contacted by NPR’s reporter for the borderlands and immigration, John Burnett. And it was a bizarre and disturbing exchange, because, essentially, he was trying to set a trap for me. He doesn’t even say, like, “Oh, I’m interested in this story. What is this about blah, blah, blah.” He just starts immediately, “Which of the facilities are concentration camps?”

And we start having an exchange, where I’m like, “I’m not going to be drawn into this game.”

And finally he admits, “Well, I’m touring the new HHS child influx center in Carrizo Springs tomorrow; so I wanted to know, like, which one of these specific shelters are concentration camps.”

And I’m like, “You were basically playing a gotcha game; you wanted me to say, like, ‘They’re all concentration camps,’ then you’re going to go on this Trump administration-run tour, and talk about how great it is.”

And in fact, that is exactly what he did in his report, but he couldn’t attribute it to anyone. He starts out by saying, you know, “Critics called these child prisons and concentration camps. But this is definitely not one of them,” or something like that; people can go listen to the report.

And then I asked him, “What do you think are concentration camps?” And he basically says, “That’s an unknowable question. And this is a controversial topic.” This is how we get euphemisms in the mainstream, where torture becomes “enhanced interrogation,” or war crimes against civilians become “collateral damage.”

Basically, anyone who is an expert in this field has said, “These are concentration camps. They meet the historical definition.”

No one is calling them “death camps.” But in 1933, the death camps were concentration camps,  and there’s all the historical examples, from Spain and Cuba, Germany and Namibia, British in South Africa. This is how they began. This is basically similar. The US has its own experience with concentration camps: reservations for Native Americans in the 19th century that were places of disease, death and brutality, to the strategic hamlets in Vietnam, which were essentially concentration camps. And so now we’re seeing this on the borders again.

But what we have is a media that is both overly legalistic, where you can’t say anything unless it arises to a judicial level of proof.

JJ: Right.

Arun Gupta: “What we have is a media…where reality is determined by who holds the most social power. If you can harangue the media enough, criticize the media enough, they will adopt the language that you use. And it’s especially the right that has gamed this system almost perfectly.”

AG: And where reality is determined by who holds the most social power. If you can harangue the media enough, criticize the media enough, they will adopt the language that you use. And it’s especially the right that has gamed this system almost perfectly.

JJ: And to me, I would add, I think it’s about defining who acceptable sources are and who should be listened to. So if you can get Arun Gupta to say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a concentration camp,” and then show a picture of what looks like a sanitary facility, then you can say, among myriad other things you’re saying, you can say, “Activists are dumb, they don’t even know what words mean, they don’t understand history. They’re just trying to gin up emotions.”

And what you tell people, you say, as Burnett says to you explicitly in that exchange, “I’m just trying to be very careful, I’m just trying to be very thoughtful about what I say.”

What you’re telling people is, “You’re seeing these horrific images, it’s okay to feel bad about it, it’s okay to feel sick about it. Just don’t imagine that you should listen to anyone about how to change it, except for these experts that we’re going to bring on for you.” And they’re going to basically tell you the status quo is all going to work it out.

I feel that a lot of people see through that now; I feel that more people are recognizing the way that journalism, and their framing, can be a problem that really blocks us from changing things in the world. And part of that is not just the ahistorical nature of their coverage of concentration camps, or of protest against concentration camps, but also a kind of ahistorical presentation of journalism, that says, “It always has to just be objective; people are saying this, some people are saying that. We don’t really know.” You know, that’s not what journalism has to be. That’s not what it has been.

And I just want to ask you, finally, what is the role for journalists in moving us forward here, and not just in keeping us locked in this horrific status quo?

AG: I was talking about this with Ari Paul, who’s a regular contributor of FAIR.

JJ: Right.

New Yorker (6/21/19)

AG: We were discussing the fact that we need a new New Journalism. It should be standard in any article, pretty much any article about Trump, especially if it involves race and immigration, that it’s just like, “Donald Trump”— then comma— “a racist” or “a white nationalist.” Take your pick. That is who he is. His agenda is clearly white nationalism. But you’re not allowed to say that, unless he basically says it himself.

I don’t want to say it’s ineffective investigative reporting. You know, I do investigative reporting, but I think it’s just the deference to power. And so we need a more speculative, a more historical, a more kind of essay-style journalism.

And I will point to one piece, and one writer in particular, in the mainstream media who has really done, I think, an excellent job, is Masha Gessen for the New Yorker.

JJ: Right.

AG: And she had a recent piece about the unimaginable reality of American concentration camps. And I think she really nailed the subject on the head, that the reason we can’t use that term, the media can’t use the term, is because concentration camps are supposed to be unimaginable, right? They’re supposed to be this horror, but in fact, what we’re seeing is the normalization, where they become imaginable, but we are not allowed to use that term. And John Burnett is just a symptom of this. He can look back and tell his children and grandchildren, “I helped to normalize concentration camps,” if they ask him, “Where were you when there were concentration camps being set up?”

This is what journalism is now doing. They are helping to normalize the concentration camps.

JJ: The call is not to journalists; it’s to human beings around the country. And I think I’d just like to end on that note, that as important as we know media are, people are more important.

AG: Exactly.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with journalist Arun Gupta; find the call to action, “Close the Concentration Camps Now!,” and hook into the work at NoMoreCamps.org. Arun Gupta, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AG:  Thanks for having me on.


Trump’s Defenders Say He’s an American Exceptionalist. Not Long Ago, He Claimed the Opposite.

Mother Jones Magazine -

As just about everyone knows by now, President Trump tweeted on Sunday that four “progressive” Democratic congresswomen should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Following this tweet and his subsequent doubling-down on it, many have condemned his statements as racist. But many also have defended his comments, including White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The basis of the White House’s argument? American exceptionalism.

Grisham, for example, tweeted, “His message is simple: the U.S.A. is the greatest nation on Earth, but if people aren’t happy here they don’t have to stay.”

So typical to watch the mainstream media and Dems attack @realDonaldTrump for speaking directly to the American people. His message is simple: the U.S.A. is the greatest nation on Earth, but if people aren’t happy here they don’t have to stay.

— Stephanie Grisham (@PressSec) July 15, 2019

That message, the idea that the US is better than any other nation, is American exceptionalism in a nutshell. The narrative of American exceptionalism is that the US “enjoys an exceptional global position today because it is, well, exceptional,” as a writer for Foreign Policy put it. Mother Jones explained in 2017 that, “People often equate the expression with the notion that God made America ‘a city upon a hill,’ in the words of the Puritan colonist John Winthrop.”

American exceptionalism has also been used as justification for a history of violence that ranges from the mass killing of Native Americans during the United States’ westward expansion to the civilian bloodshed in the Middle East during the War on Terror. In 2012, the Republican Party included “American exceptionalism” as one of the party platform’s seven sections; at present, it is mentioned twice there. Former Democratic President Obama has said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”

Nevertheless, in 2015, Trump said he didn’t believe in American exceptionalism. As Mother Jones‘ David Corn wrote in 2016: 

In late April 2015, a month before Trump officially announced his candidacy, he spoke at an event called “Celebrating the American Dream” that was hosted in Houston by the Texas Patriots PAC, a local tea party outfit…About an hour into the program, McIngvale posed Trump this query: “Define American exceptionalism. Does American exceptionalism still exist? And what do we do to grow American exceptionalism?”

Trump replied:

I don’t like the term. I’ll be honest with you. People say, “Oh he’s not patriotic.” Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. We’re exceptional; you’re not. First of all, Germany is eating our lunch. So they say, “Why are you exceptional. We’re doing a lot better than you.” I never liked the term. And perhaps that’s because I don’t have a very big ego and I don’t need terms like that.

On the other hand, he may have been merely foreshadowing his own presidential ambitions. “I’d like to make us exceptional,” he continued. “And I’d like to talk later instead of now.” Two months later, he announced his presidential candidacy. 

Trump’s Reelection Could Spell the End of American Democracy

TruthDig.com News -

It’s often said that if Trump is reelected, it’ll be the end of democracy in America. But how could Trump get reelected, and how could democracy get wiped out in the USA?

Turns out, there’s an actual project to rewrite our Constitution, turning America into a corporate-run oligarchy.

They’d end the income tax, eliminate federal regulatory agencies like the EPA, end all labor protections (including laws against child labor), let states ignore anti-discrimination and other federal regulations, and impose term limits so the only “institutional memory” for legislatures will be the corporate lobbyists.

All it needs to succeed—within just a few short years—is for Trump and the GOP to win big in 2020. And the prospects of that happening are going up every day. With a big Trump win will come a rewrite of our Constitution itself, if the billionaires funding it have their way.

But how could he win? With another $2 billion worth of free publicity, just like in 2016.

One example is how Trump’s reelection campaign got a great boost recently when the media, just like in 2016, went all-Trump-all-the-time around his ICE raids, and when he told four congresswomen of color to “go home” to the countries of their ancestors—a racist trope for centuries.

The ICE raids were merely arrests of undocumented people who actually have committed crimes (beyond crossing the border) and currently have legal deportation orders already in place; they’re arrests like the ones Presidents Bush and Obama did daily.

There was nothing unique about them, and year over year, Trump has actually deported fewer people than Obama did.

But Trump tweeted the media into a frenzy, and like obedient hounds, they frantically ran after the bits of hamburger he threw their way.

As Ayanna Pressley noted Monday, the media shouldn’t “take the bait.” Nonetheless, literally every week—virtually every day—since Trump was elected, he’s gotten the media to put his name on the front page of the nation’s newspapers and at the top of the TV news shows.

And in America, as P.T. Barnum (whom Trump has cited as a role model) said, it doesn’t matter if publicity is positive or negative, “As long as they spell my name right.” And they always spell Trump’s name right.

As we saw with the 2015–2016 Republican primary, that Barnum-like daily publicity was all he needed to take down an entire field of competent, professional, and well-financed Republicans. Taking down Democrats may be even easier if he can paint the Democrats with his “open borders” and “Soviet-style socialism” lies (among others).

NBC trained Trump well; they spent millions teaching him how to do a reality show, from cliff-hangers to pitting “heroes” against “goats.” It’s one of the few things he’s actually good at. And instead of his old “Apprentice” weekly show, he’s now producing a daily show from the White House.

But to what end?

It’s looking more and more like the endgame here for Trump—and the right-wing billionaires who support him and the GOP—is not just to get reelected, but to actually rewrite our Constitution and end the American experiment.

The group leading this charge for the billionaires is called Citizens for Self-Governance (CSG), which SourceWatch.org says, “is a right-wing political organization … that is campaigning for an Article V convention to amend the U.S. Constitution.”

SourceWatch notes that, “Through its ‘Convention of States’ project, CSG promotes an effort to amend the U.S. Constitution pursuant to Article V, which provides that thirty-four states (two-thirds) can trigger a convention to propose an amendment, which must then be ratified by 38 states (three-fourths).”

They add, CSG director Eric O’Keefe “has deep ties to Charles and David Koch and has been a founder and funder of numerous right-wing groups including Wisconsin Club for Growth,” and the CSG, “Through its Convention of States project, is pushing for a constitutional convention in order to severely restrict federal power, for example by redefining the Commerce Clause to prohibit Congress from enacting child labor or anti-discrimination laws, or by adding a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.”

And they’re actually doing it, complete with annual dress rehearsals in the Washington, D.C., area. As Wikipedia notes:

“In December 2013, nearly 100 legislators from 32 states met at Mount Vernon to talk about how to call a convention of states. … In February 2014, U.S. Senator Tom Coburn announced that after his retirement from Congress, he would focus on promoting the Convention of States to state legislatures.

“In December 2015, Marco Rubio endorsed CSG’s efforts to a call [for] an Article V Convention. In January 2016, Texas Governor Greg Abbott called for a Convention of States to restrict the power of the federal government.”

And their rehearsals now include delegates from every state in the union.

Wikipedia notes:

“In September 2016, CSG held a simulated convention to propose amendments to the United States Constitution in Williamsburg, Virginia. An assembly of 137 delegates representing every state gathered to conduct a simulated convention. The simulated convention passed amendments relating to six topics, including requiring the states to approve any increase in the national debt, imposing term limits, restricting the scope of the Commerce Clause [to its original meaning], limiting the power of federal regulations, requiring a supermajority to impose federal taxes and repealing the 16th Amendment [end the income tax], and giving the states the power to abrogate any federal law, regulation, or executive order.”

The Convention of States website notes that as of 2019, 15 states have signed on, and enough to hit the critical 38 are lined up, just waiting for right-wing billionaire takeovers of their state legislatures.

And taking over state legislatures in 2020 just became a huge priority for those billionaires because of the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing radical gerrymandering. Expect hundreds of millions of dollars to pour into state legislative and gubernatorial races (thanks to Citizens United), with virtually no opposing funding from the handful of left-wing billionaires.

Progress to rewrite our Constitution was slow but steady when Georgia’s legislature was the first state to join, in March of 2014. States that signed on before Trump’s election included Georgia, Alaska, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

Since Trump took over the White House, however, they’ve added Arizona, North Dakota, Texas, Missouri, and, just in the first three months of 2019, Arkansas, Utah, and Mississippi.

As of now, the call for a Convention to rewrite the Constitution has also passed at least one chamber of the legislatures in New Mexico, Mississippi, Iowa, South Dakota, Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, and New Hampshire.

And with Trump in power, the Convention of States website notes that just this year (2019) they are working to bring in Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia, Illinois and Hawaii.

If Trump is as successful in manipulating the media as he was in 2016, and the GOP can ride his coattails (along with hundreds of millions from right-wing billionaires) to sweep the Democratic-controlled states they’re targeting, they could hit the 38 states needed to replace the Constitution in the first year or two after his reelection (there are 40 states in the lists above).

A probably apocryphal quote often attributed to Arnold Toynbee says, “When the last man who remembers the horrors of the last great war dies, the next great war becomes inevitable.”

Similarly, when the last American who remembers how quickly democratic constitutions were replaced in Europe in the 1930s dies, the replacement of democracy in America becomes inevitable.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment and more than 25 other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.

The post Trump’s Reelection Could Spell the End of American Democracy appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Lunchtime Photo

Mother Jones Magazine -

Here are some illuminated jellyfish from the Moonlight Forest show at the LA County Arboretum last winter. Jellyfish! After yesterday’s gloomy black-and-white photo, I figured we could all use a big slug of color today.

December 9, 2019 — LA County Arboretum, Arcadia, California

NAFTA 2.0 Is Completely Useless

Mother Jones Magazine -

A while back I noted that the new USMCA treaty (i.e., NAFTA 2.0) would not increase American GDP. The government’s own analysis projects a GDP decrease of 0.12 percent, but then adds back 0.47 percentage points because they figure that newfound certainty in things like intellectual property rules will increase investment. This suggests that we might be better off just adopting the IP rules and skipping the rest.

But wait! Jeffrey Schott of the Peterson Institute for International Economics—normally the kind of place that loves trade treaties—says that even this is bogus:

Some supporters of the deal say it provides new rules that will benefit the U.S. But those “new” rules aren’t new. Rather they mirror provisions affecting labor, the environment and e-commerce from the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership that have been carried out by Mexico and Canada since that accord went into effect on Dec. 30, 2018. Trump withdrew from the TPP, but Canada and Mexico remained in it, and already apply these provisions in trade relations with the U.S.

Is this true? It seems like it. The main IP provisions of the USMCA are here. A side-by-side comparison with TPP is here. As near as I can tell, Canada and Mexico already agreed to all of USMCA’s IP rules when they signed onto TPP, with one exception: patent protection for biologics is ten years in USMCA compared to eight years in TPP. That’s about it.

Unless I’m missing something, Donald Trump has negotiated a treaty that favors Canada and Mexico when it comes to trade in goods, and does virtually nothing new to favor the US in IP law. It’s even more useless than I ever imagined.

POSTSCRIPT: Needless to day, if there are any legit trade experts out there who think I am missing something, please speak up!

Background Briefings Are a Scourge

Mother Jones Magazine -

Technology journalist Brian Merchant says he’s tired of PR flacks from tech companies refusing to talk unless it’s off-the-record:

After my experience with Amazon, I decided that on all matters of importance, I am no longer going to listen to a public relations representative try to change my mind on background with unquotable statements attributable to no one. No reporter should, not when the stakes are as high as they are. If an actual source—an engineer, or a policymaker—wants to go on background for protection, that’s one thing. But a spokesperson should either go on the record or get off the phone.

I get that day-to-day journalists have a different job than I do. They need responses from tech companies when they write about them, and they genuinely want to hear both sides of a story. Nevertheless, it’s inconceivable to me that they routinely let companies get away with this. And not just tech companies, either. This goes for everyone. As Merchant says, a background briefing allows a company flack to say anything without being held accountable. They can fill your mind with any kind of nonsense as a way of trying to change what you write, and it’s all but impossible to check out the truth of what they’re saying.

I have long refused to talk to anyone on background. Obviously this is pretty easy for me, especially since I don’t talk to very many people in the first place. But the truth is that corporate PR shops aren’t very useful even when they do talk on the record, and little is missed if you give up the routine practice of “asking for comment” on every story. Inevitably, the comment is either “no comment” or “we deny it.” Who needs it?

Either talk on the record or shut up. Those should be your choices.

Trump Plan to Roll Back Nuclear Inspections Raises Alarm

TruthDig.com News -

After months of experts raising alarm over the nuclear power industry pressuring U.S. regulators to roll back safety policies, staffers at the federal agency that monitors reactors sparked concerns Tuesday with official recommendations that include scaling back required inspections to save money.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has spent months reviewing its enforcement policies—and, as part of that process, sought input from industry groups, as Common Dreams detailed in March. In response, the industry representatives requested shifting to more “self-assessments,” limiting public disclosures for “lower-level” problems at plants, and easing the “burden of radiation-protection and emergency-preparedness inspections.”

According to The Associated Press, which first reported on NRC staffers’ suggestions:

The recommendations, made public Tuesday, include reducing the time and scope of some annual inspections at the nation’s 90-plus nuclear power plants. Some other inspections would be cut from every two years to every three years.

Some of the staff’s recommendations would require a vote by the commission, which has a majority of members appointed or reappointed by President Donald Trump, who has urged agencies to reduce regulatory requirements for industries.

The NRC document that outlines the recommendations reportedly acknowledges that staffers disagree about the inspection reductions but claims that cutting back “improves efficiency while still helping to ensure reasonable assurance of adequate protection to the public.”

Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear power expert Edwin Lyman, however, charged that the suggestion to decrease federal oversight of nuclear power plants “completely ignores the cause-and-effect relationship between inspections and good performances.”

Democratic NRC member Jeff Baran also criticized the staff recommendations. He argued that the agency “shouldn’t perform fewer inspections or weaken its safety oversight to save money” and called for a public debate before any changes are made to existing policy.

“It affects every power reactor in the country,” he said. “We should absolutely hear from a broad range of stakeholders before making any far-reaching changes to NRC’s safety oversight program.”

Before the recommendations were released Tuesday, Democrats from the House Appropriations as well as Energy and Commerce committees expressed concerns about potential rollbacks of safety standards in a letter (pdf) to NRC Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki Monday.

NEW from @AppropsDems & @EnergyCommerce on @NRCgov‘s proposed changes to its monitoring of nuclear power plants: “Cutting corners on such critical safety measures may eventually lead to a disaster that could be detrimental to the future of the domestic nuclear industry.” pic.twitter.com/hB42OK3Vlv

— House Appropriations (@AppropsDems) July 15, 2019

The lawmakers wrote:

To ensure nuclear power provides safe, reliable, emissions-free energy, it is imperative for the NRC to uphold strong regulatory standards. That is why we are disturbed by the consideration of these far-reaching changes to the NRC’s regulatory regime without first actively conducting robust public outreach and engagement. It would be a mistake to attempt to make nuclear power more cost competitive by weakening NRC’s vital safety oversight. Cutting corners on such critical safety measures may eventually lead to a disaster that could be detrimental to the future of the domestic nuclear industry.

The AP‘s report on agency staffers’ official recommendations provoked further alarm from lawmakers and the public. Some people on Twitter decried the inspection proposal as “an insanely bad move” and “beyond nuts,” and referenced the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which is considered the world’s worst ever nuclear power plant accident.

Democratic Pennsylvania state Rep. Peter Schweyer tweeted that he would “happily” share his HBO password with the NRC “so they can catch up on” the network’s recently released series about Chernobyl.

I’ll happily give the Nuclear Regulatory Commission my @HBO password so they can catch up on #Chernobyl https://t.co/4CK76VfbYZ

— Peter Schweyer (@peter_schweyer) July 17, 2019

U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) wrote in a tweet that considering how many millions of Americans live in close proximity to nuclear power plants, the agency “needs to do more—not less—to ensure nuclear reactor safety.”

Over 180 million Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. @NRCgov needs to do more – not less – to ensure nuclear reactor safety. https://t.co/LR3levl54m

— Rep. Harley Rouda (@RepHarley) July 17, 2019

The post Trump Plan to Roll Back Nuclear Inspections Raises Alarm appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Ebola Outbreak in Congo Declared a Global Health Emergency

TruthDig.com News -

GENEVA — The deadly Ebola outbreak in Congo is now an international health emergency, the World Health Organization announced on Wednesday after the virus spread this week to a city of two million people .

A WHO expert committee had declined on three previous occasions to advise the United Nations health agency to make the declaration for this outbreak, which other experts say has long met the conditions. More than 1,600 people have died since August in the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, which is unfolding in a region described as a war zone.

This week the first Ebola case was confirmed in Goma, a major regional crossroads in northeastern Congo on the Rwandan border with an international airport. Health experts have feared this scenario for months.

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A declaration of a global health emergency often brings greater international attention and aid, along with concerns that nervous governments might overreact with border closures.

While the risk of regional spread remains high the risk outside the region remains low, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said after the announcement in Geneva. “The (international emergency) should not be used to stigmatize or penalize the very people who are most in need of our help,” he said.

This is the fifth such declaration in history. Previous emergencies were declared for the devastating 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people, the emergence of Zika in the Americas, the swine flu pandemic and polio eradication.

WHO defines a global emergency as an “extraordinary event” which constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response. Last month this outbreak spilled across the border for the first time when a family brought the virus into Uganda after attending the burial in Congo of an infected relative. Even then, the expert committee advised against a declaration.

Alexandra Phelan, a global health expert at Georgetown University Law Center, said Wednesday’s declaration was long overdue.

“This essentially serves as a call to the international community that they have to step up appropriate financial and technical support,” she said but warned that countries should be wary of imposing travel or trade restrictions.

“Those restrictions would actually restrict the flow of goods and health care workers into affected countries so they are counter-productive,” she said. Future emergency declarations might be perceived as punishment and “might result in other countries not reporting outbreaks in the future, which puts us all at greater risk.”

WHO had been heavily criticized for its sluggish response to the West Africa outbreak, which it repeatedly declined to declare a global emergency until the virus was spreading explosively in three countries and nearly 1,000 people were dead. Internal documents later showed WHO held off partly out of fear a declaration would anger the countries involved and hurt their economies.

The current outbreak is spreading in a turbulent Congo border region where dozens of rebel groups are active and where Ebola had not been experienced before. Efforts to contain the virus have been hurt by mistrust by wary locals that has prompted deadly attacks on health workers. Some infected people have deliberately evaded health authorities.

The pastor who brought Ebola to Goma used several fake names to conceal his identity on his way to the city, Congolese officials said. WHO on Tuesday said the man had died and health workers were scrambling to trace dozens of his contacts, including those who had traveled on the same bus.

There was no immediate reaction to WHO’s emergency declaration from Congo’s health ministry, which had lobbied against it.

“Calling for a (global emergency) to raise funds while ignoring the negative consequences for (Congo) is reckless,” the ministry tweeted following an editorial by Britain’s secretary of state for international development in favor of a declaration. Rory Stewart announced earlier this week that Britain would donate up to another $63 million for the Ebola response and called for other countries, especially Francophone ones, to increase their support.

At a U.N. meeting on Ebola in Geneva on Tuesday, Congo’s health minister, Dr. Oly Ilunga, said the outbreak was “not a humanitarian crisis” and that the risk of Ebola spreading to other cities or regions in Congo remained the same.

“Ebola is not rocket science, it’s very simple,” he said.

WHO has long called the regional Ebola risk “very high.”

Earlier this week, Ugandan health officials said a Congolese fish trader had traveled to Uganda while sick and vomited several times at a local market. The woman returned to Congo last week and died after testing positive for Ebola. Ugandan officials estimate almost 600 people could be targeted for vaccination and follow-up.

Those working in the field say the outbreak is clearly taking a turn for the worse despite advances in this outbreak that include the widespread use of an experimental but effective Ebola vaccine.

Dr. Maurice Kakule was one of the first people to survive the current outbreak after he fell ill while treating a woman last July before the outbreak had even been declared.

“What is clear is that Ebola is an emergency because the epidemic persists despite every possible effort to educate people,” he told the Geneva meeting. “We have sufficiently informed them about the existence of this disease but there are still people who don’t want to believe that it does.”


Cheng reported from London. Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Beni, Congo contributed.

The post Ebola Outbreak in Congo Declared a Global Health Emergency appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Pence Staffer Says Elaine Chao Is a Better Immigrant Than Ilhan Omar

Mother Jones Magazine -

There’s a key difference between Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), according to Darin Miller, the deputy press secretary for Vice President Mike Pence: Chao is a good immigrant who “worked hard and assimilated,” but Omar “seems content to criticize America at every turn.” That’s the gist of an email I received yesterday from Miller, shortly after publishing this roundup of some of the worst responses to President Donald Trump’s racist weekend tweetstorm

Miller emailed me to say that he thought I had misconstrued the comments that Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, made to Fox News on Monday. In that interview, Short said that Trump can’t have “racist motives” because he appointed Chao—the former secretary of labor during the George W. Bush era and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)—as the secretary of transportation. 

Here's Marc Short, Pence's chief of staff, defending Trump's racist tweets this morning by claiming that he can't have had "racist motives" because Elaine Chao serves in his cabinet, and he's making the point that Ilhan Omar never says positive things about the U.S.. pic.twitter.com/B7WkNxjQPG

— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) July 15, 2019

Since the president’s tweets on Sunday that told four freshman Democratic congresswomen of color—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—to “go back…from which they came,” the Republican Party is still struggling with how to deal with the situation. Most GOPers have remained silent, a few have joined Democrats in officially condemning Trump’s tweets, and others have committed wild jumps in logic to claim his tweets weren’t racist—and Short’s comment about Chao fit into the latter category. That’s why I included them in a collection of responses to Trump’s tweets. 

But the office of the Vice President didn’t agree. And Miller insisted that Chao is a different kind of immigrant than Omar. Here’s what he wrote: 

I think you misconstrue what [Short] was saying, which is that Secretary Chao’s story is an example of what the President supports: She came legally to the U.S., worked hard and assimilated, and is dedicated to giving back and serving her country, and we can all support that. Contrast that with Rep. Omar, who seems content to criticize America at every turn, instead of trying to fix problems she sees—for instance, she opposed the overwhelmingly bipartisan emergency border aid bill, which provided much-needed humanitarian aid for asylum seekers.

The truth is there isn’t a meaningful difference between Chao and Omar’s immigration stories. Like Chao, Omar immigrated legally to the country and now serves in the federal government, albeit with a different agenda. Omar, along with many other of her Democratic colleagues, didn’t vote for the border bill due to policy disagreements.

Still, as of Wednesday, the saga of Trump’s racist tweets is continuing to play out in Congress. Tuesday night, as the House of Representatives debated to vote on a resolution to officially condemn Trump’s tweets, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ran afoul by calling them racist, thanks to an very old House rule that says lawmakers can’t insult a president’s character on the floor. Trump, of course, had something to say about it

So great to see how unified the Republican Party was on today’s vote concerning statements I made about four Democrat Congresswomen. If you really want to see statements, look at the horrible things they said about our Country, Israel, and much more. They are now the top, most…

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 17, 2019

No, Kamala Harris Isn’t Being Preposterous

Mother Jones Magazine -

Over at National Review, John McCormack says that Kamala Harris is being “preposterous” about her Medicare for All plan:

“Senator Sanders says that that is impossible to achieve without a middle class tax hike,” CNN correspondent Kyung Lah says. “I’m not prepared to engage in a middle class tax hike,” Harris replies, suggesting that taxes on Wall Street and financial services can fund the $30 trillion program.

There might turn out to be something preposterous about this eventually, but there’s nothing preposterous about it yet. It all depends on what kind of plan Harris proposes and what the total funding source will be. If Harris were a Republican, she’d just issue a vague, one-page description and then punt on the funding, saying that she’ll work with Congress to figure out the hard stuff. But since she’s a Democrat, I’m sure we’ll eventually get a 30-page white paper about the whole thing.

Politically, I think something along the lines of Joe Biden’s plan is probably the best bet. I’d keep Obamacare; add a Medicare buy-in; phase in a corporate health care mandate that eventually covers everyone, with the option to either provide insurance or pay a payroll tax; and guarantee subsidies such that no one ever has to pay more than 10 percent of their income in premiums. That’s the bare bones, with lots of details to be added. Overall, I’d say the goal should be for public financing to cover 80-85 percent of all health care expenses.

Who Killed Oscar and Valeria: The Inconvenient History of the Refugee Crisis

Mint Press News -

History never truly retires. Every event of the past, however inconsequential, reverberates throughout and, to an extent, shapes our present, and our future as well 

The haunting image of the bodies of Salvadoran father, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter, Valeria, washed ashore at a riverbank on the Mexico-US border, cannot be understood separately from El Salvador’s painful past.

Valeria’s arms were still wrapped around her father’s neck, even as both lay, face down, dead on the Mexican side of the river, ushering the end of their desperate and, ultimately, failed attempt at reaching the US. The little girl was only 23-months-old

Following the release of the photo, media and political debates in the US focused partly on Donald Trump’s administration’s inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants. For Democrats, it was a chance at scoring points against Trump, prior to the start of presidential election campaigning. Republicans, naturally, went on the defensive. 

Aside from a few alternative media sources, little has been said about the US role in Oscar and Valeria’s deaths, starting with its funding of El Salvador’s “dirty war” in the 1980s. The outcome of that war continues to shape the present, thus the future of that poor South American nation. 

Oscar and Valeria were merely escaping ‘violence’ and the drug wars in El Salvador, many US media sources reported, but little was said of the US government’s support of El Salvador’s brutal regimes in the past as they battled Marxist guerrillas. Massive amounts of US military aid was poured into a country that was in urgent need for true democracy, basic human rights and sustainable economic infrastructure. 

Back then, the US “went well beyond remaining largely silent in the face of human-rights abuses in El Salvador,” wrote Raymond Bonner in the Nation. “The State Department and White House often sought to cover up the brutality, to protect the perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes.” 

These crimes, included the butchering of 700 innocent people, many of them children, by the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion in the village of El Mozote, in the northeastern part of the country. Leaving El Salvador teetering between organized criminal violence and the status of a failed state, the US continued to use the country as a vassal for its misguided foreign policy to this day. Top US diplomats, like Elliott Abraham, who channeled support to the Salvadoran regime in the 1980s carried on with a successful political career, unhindered.

A forensic anthropologist cleans a skull at a site of at least 58 human remains, including at least 50 children, in El Mozote, El Salvador. Michael Stravato | AP

To understand the tragic death of Oscar and Valeria in any other way would be a dishonest interpretation of a historical tragedy. 

The dominant discourse on the growing refugee crisis around the world has been shaped by this deception. Instead of honestly examining the roots of the global refugee crisis, many of us often oscillate between self-gratifying humanitarianism, jingoism or utter indifference. It is as if the story of Oscar and Valeria began the moment they decided to cross a river between Mexico and the US, not decades earlier. Every possible context before that decision is conveniently dropped.

The politics of many countries around the world have been shaped by the debate on refugees as if basic human rights should be subject to discussion. In Italy, the ever-opportunistic Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, has successfully shaped a whole national conversation around refugees. 

Like other far-right European politicians, Salvini continues to blatantly manipulate collective Italian fear and discontent regarding the state of their economy by framing all of the country’s troubles around the subject of African migrants and refugees. 52% of Italians believe that migrants and refugees are a burden to their country, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. 

Those who subscribe to Salvini’s self-serving logic are blinded by far-right rhetoric and outright ignorance. To demonstrate this assertion, one only needs to examine the reality of Italian intervention in Libya, as part of the NATO war on that country in March 2011. 

Without a doubt, the war on Libya, justified on the basis of a flawed interpretation of United Nations Resolution 1973, was the main reason behind the surge of refugees and migrants to Italy, en-route to Europe. 

According to the Migration Policy Center, prior to the 2011 war, “outward migration was not an issue for the Libyan population.” This changed, following the lethal NATO war on Libya, which pushed the country squarely into the status of failed states. 

Between the start of the war on March 19 and June 8, 2011, 422,912 Libyans and 768,372 foreign nationals fled the country, according to the International Organization of Migration (IOM). Many of those refugees sought asylum in Europe. Salvini’s virulent anti-refugee discourse is bereft of any reference to that shameful, self-indicting reality. 

In fact, Salvini’s own Lega party was a member of the Italian coalition which took part in NATO’s war on Libya. Not only is Salvini refusing to acknowledge his country’s role in fostering the current refugee crisis, but he is designating as an ‘enemy’ humanitarian NGOs that are active in rescuing stranded refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

Refugees trying to reach Italy await rescue in the Mediterranean Sea, about 15 miles north of Sabratha, Libya. Santi Palacios | AP

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHRC), an estimated 2,275 people drowned while attempting to cross to Europe in 2018 alone. Thousands of precious lives, like those of Oscar and Valeria, would have been spared, had NATO not intervened on the pretext of wanting to save lives in Libya in 2011.   

According to UNHRC, as of June 19, 2019, there are 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide; of them, 41.3 million are internally displaced people, while 25.9 million are refugees who crossed international borders. 

Yet, despite the massive influx of refugees, and the obvious logic between political meddling (as in El Salvador) and military intervention (as in Libya), no western government is yet to accept any moral – let alone legal – accountability for the massive human suffering underway. 

Italy, France, Britain, and other NATO members who took part in bombing Libya in 2013 are guilty of fueling today’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. Similarly, the supposedly random ‘violence’ and drug wars in El Salvador must be seen within the political context of misguided American interventionism. Were it not for such violent interventions, Oscar, Valeria and millions of innocent people would have still been alive today. 

Feature photo | Rosa Ramirez sobs as she shows journalists toys that belonged to her nearly 2-year-old granddaughter Valeria in her home in San Martin, El Salvador, June 25, 2019. Antonio Valladares | AP

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His last book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and was a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

The post Who Killed Oscar and Valeria: The Inconvenient History of the Refugee Crisis appeared first on MintPress News.

LA Needs an Old Approach to Homelessness

Mother Jones Magazine -

A couple of years ago LA passed a big bond measure to address its homelessness problem. The money is mostly earmarked for permanent shelter, which is, needless to say, expensive and time-consuming to build. I’ve long thought that this makes little sense, but I’m no expert—as people are fond of reminding me whenever I write something about homelessness—so I’ve just kept quiet.

Today, however, the LA Times features a pair of op-eds suggesting that Los Angeles should ditch its permanent shelter model and follow the New York model instead, which focuses on getting people indoors and then working from there. Here is New York’s Dr. Marc Siegel:

Whereas L.A. has focused (unsuccessfully) on trying to create long-term affordable housing, New York City has focused on creating temporary shelters. As a result, today only about 5% of New York City’s homeless population is without shelter. In Los Angeles, 75% of the homeless population is without shelter. Our homeless numbers are not that different from yours in Los Angeles, but in New York, few people are living on the street.

….As a physician, I witnessed firsthand a huge shift when New York began its emphasis on providing shelter for all. Mental illness, drug addiction and contagious diseases like hepatitis A, B and C were still a problem, but they weren’t nearly as severe as when so much of the homeless population was “bedless,” living in cardboard boxes or in the subway. It is simply impossible to provide good treatment to a patient with mental or physical illness living in that way.

In Los Angeles, local government officials are dispatching more garbage trucks and portable toilets and showers to skid row, but that’s just a Band-Aid. As long as there are thousands of people living on single city blocks, there will be problems with garbage disposal and human waste, which means rats will abound. And rats carry fleas, and fleas are carriers of typhus bacteria, which causes fever, muscle aches, and severe headaches, among other symptoms.

Darrel Steinberg, a longtime mental care advocate in the California legislature, who is now mayor of Sacramento, agrees:

I still believe strongly in the concept of housing first, but I’ve also come to see that focusing primarily on permanent housing is insufficient. We simply don’t have the housing stock necessary to address our current crisis, and building it will take too long and cost too much. We need an infusion of short-term shelter and housing options to serve as a bridge for those currently living on our streets.

….In 2019, New York City will spend about $1.6 billion to shelter 75,000 people. Our unsheltered population numbers about 90,000. I believe the cost of getting them indoors would be a bargain considering what California spends on public safety and cleanup without actually getting people off the streets. I think Californians would overwhelmingly agree.

In California, at least, permanent housing is practically a mantra—and in an ideal world it’s a good idea. In the real world, unfortunately, it’s simply too hard and too expensive to build enough permanent housing in all the places it’s needed. What’s more, not all homeless people are able or willing to live in permanent housing in the first place.

As Siegel says, we should focus primarily on getting the homeless indoors any way we can. Different people are willing to tolerate different rules and different levels of supervision, and we should accept this if that’s what it takes to get them to take the first step off the streets. And if, for some people, that’s the only step they’re ever willing to take? We have to accept that too. If we can keep them relatively clean, safe, and accessible to medical care, that’s a big win all by itself.

Does Waymo Really Have Self-Driving Cars Ready to Go?

Mother Jones Magazine -

The New York Times says that automakers are resetting their expectations for self-driving cars after discovering that there’s more weird behavior on the road than they anticipated:

Argo’s chief executive, Bryan Salesky, said the industry’s bigger promise of creating driverless cars that could go anywhere was “way in the future.” He and others attribute the delay to something as obvious as it is stubborn: human behavior. Researchers at Argo say the cars they are testing in Pittsburgh and Miami have to navigate unexpected situations every day. Recently, one of the company’s cars encountered a bicyclist riding the wrong way down a busy street between other vehicles. Another Argo test car came across a street sweeper that suddenly turned a giant circle in an intersection, touching all four corners and crossing lanes of traffic that had the green light.

I’ve said before that the bellwether for autonomous cars is Waymo, so what do they have to say?

Waymo operates a fleet of 600 test vehicles — the same number it had on the road a year ago….“We are able to do the driving task,” Tekedra Mawakana, Waymo’s chief external officer, said in an interview. “But the reason we don’t have a service in 50 states is that we are still validating a host of elements related to offering a service. Offering a service is very different than building a technology.

This is a fascinating quote. But what does it mean? If Waymo can “do the driving task,” does that mean they can really, genuinely, 100 percent do the driving task? And if that’s the case, why not ditch the whole taxi service idea and just sell self-driving cars to individuals? (Or lease them or whatever.) Hell, I’d be interested in a car that just did highway driving with 100 percent reliability—i.e., reliability so high that I can take a nap instead of keeping my hands on the wheel. So what’s up with that, Waymo?


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