How the Obscenely Wealthy Are Strangling Our Democracy

AlterNet.org - April 22, 2014 - 12:47pm
The wealthiest interests can veto any government initiative.

A new academic paper by Princeton University’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page has made national headlines by concluding that wealthly Americans almost always get what they want from the political system regardless of what middle-class and working-class people seek from the government.

AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld spoke with Benjamin Page about this research and the prospects for political change and a progressive agenda.

Steven Rosenfeld: Tell us what you mean when you say that the U.S. is no longer a democracy in the way most people perceive it, or think they understand what a democracy is?

Benjamin Page: Most people in a democracy think that the government pays a lot of attention to average citizens. And what we found was when average citizens disagree with more affluent people and more organized interest groups, the average citizens lose out almost always. In other words, they have almost no independent influence.

SR: How were you able to determine that?

BP: It took a ton of work, mostly by [Princeton University professor and co-author] Marty Gilens and his people. It took him about 10 years to assemble the data, which consists of information about 1,775 different policy-making cases in which he found survey questions in which he found what average citizens want, and also what higher income citizens want. Then he put together information about interest groups, both for and against; business groups and mass-oriented groups. And he used those different preferences and alignments to predict policy outcomes.

It turned out, as I say, that the interest groups, especially business groups and affluent individuals, have a lot of effect on what policies are adopted, but average citizens have no independent effect at all.

SR: One of the most interesting findings in your research was there are times when the interests of more average people and wealthier people align, and then Congress or government will move forward. But where they don’t align, they won’t: bills will be killed or policies won’t be adopted. It’s almost as if there is an invisible veto, if you will.Would you put it that way?

BP: I think that’s a good way to put it. Yeah. That’s right.

SR: Your research has gotten lots of attention and is part of the rising discussion of inequality. What do you think people should take from this?

BP: It is a very interesting moment because a lot of people have concluded that there’s something terribly wrong with American politics. I think it’s not just us. There’s the Thomas Piketty book about capital in the 21st century, [New York Times columnist] Paul Krugman hammering away about inequality, many people talking about these things have led to a point where I can imagine some political change occuring.

SR: How will that occur? I have covered money in politics since the late 1990s. The Supreme Court has slowly made it safer and safer for the wealthy to have more power and influence. Congress is more of a rich person’s club where the concerns of average or lower-income people get short shrift. It’s almost as if, if you haven’t figured out how to make a million, you are not deserving.   

BP: Yes, there is a definite paradox. If you want to change the political system and make it more democratic you have to overcome the undemocratic influence that’s already there. But we know historically that that can sometimes happen.

The Progressive Period at the beginning of the 20th century is a very interesting analogy. Something that fits right in with our analysis is the end of the Gilded Age, the first Gilded Age of huge inequality, there was a very broad rebellion to give more ordinary people a greater voice in politics: direct election of U.S. senators, and many other changes. And a lot of that was led by upper-income people.

And I think something similar is possible today. There’s a lot of grassroots upset but also some leadership from affluent people who are worried about the whole system breaking down. So we might see change.

SR: I know a lot of wealthier people don’t like to get fundraising calls.

BP: Absolutely. That’s absolutely right.

SR: And lots of businesses would like a leveler playing fields; not competitors who have obtained state or federal subsidies to their bottom lines.

BP: Yes.

SR: But do you really see currents of change bubbling up?

BP: I would look a little different place for people who actually are enthusiasts of change. I think you are explaining why moderate business people could be persuaded to go along with it, but the larger engine is much more likely to be upper-middle-class professionals. In our survey of wealthy people around Chicago we found that the professionals are really pretty different from business owners. Even if they have eight or 10 million dollars, they don’t think the same way. And a fair number of them—those are the people who were very important in the Progressive Period—a fair number of them want political reform right now.

SR: What can you tell me about their views or what they’d like?

BP: Well, we need to kearn more about that. We just did a little pilot survey. But it’s pretty clear that these people really don’t like the idea of institutionalized corruption. The point is not that the politicians are crooks, it’s that the system is corrupt because it so much favors money givers. And a lot of people basically believe in clean politics and democratic politics.

SR: What do you suggest that people do as they consider all this?

BP: I think there are things that average people can do that are very important. One is don’t give up. Krugman is right. You don’t want to get cynical and sort of give up and let money rule. What you want to do is fight back. One of the ways is to make sure you vote. The congressional elections next fall are going to be very important. Off-year elections are stacked against average people. The turnout is low. Money and activists tend to control a lot of what goes on. But if there are organized social movements, that’s not a given. So that’s one branch of action.

Another is to really push for reforms of various sorts: the simplest being disclosure of political contributions of all kinds. It’s really very strange to have no accountability, no awareness. Beyond that, regulating lobbying better. Andf figuring out how to reduce the power of money in elections. Some of that the Supreme Court has made harder. But some of that can be done by public financing, which reduces the power of private money by substituting public money.

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Has Earth Day Lost Its Way?

AlterNet.org - April 22, 2014 - 12:31pm
From epic day of citizen action to marketing gimmick in just 40-odd years.

It probably has something to do with the fact that I’m one of the last sentimentalists standing in this ironic age, but I’ll admit that I get a little misty eyed when I think about the first Earth Day.

Do you remember it? Can you imagine it? On April 22, 1970 some 20 million Americans in cities and towns across the country turned out for a coordinated day of action to express their desire for a society that would live more conscientiously with this one and only planet. People picked up trash on beaches and in streams, they planted gardens, they organized and attended environmental teach-ins, they marched and chanted and sang. The whole thing was thought up a US Senator, Gaylord Nelson, and organized by a scrappy group of twenty-somethings. Elected officials had no choice but to stand up and get involved. At the Earth Day demonstration in Manhattan, New York Mayor John Lindsey told the crowd: “Beyond words like ecology, environment, and pollution there is a simple question: Do we want to live or die?”

I myself don’t remember (I wasn’t born yet), and can only imagine such a thing. Which is probably why I think of that first epic day of environmental activism in sepia-hued tones. To me it all seems sort of incredible – the scale (20 million people!), the involvement from the political establishment, the fact that it led, relatively quickly, to achievements like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act.

There are a lot of things that compete with Earth Day for the claim to have sparked the environmental movement: the fight over Hetch-Hetchy reservoir 100 years ago, the campaign to protect the Grand Canyon from dams, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the oil spill off Santa Barbara (which did, indeed, inspire Senator Nelson). Still, there’s no question that the organic outpouring of citizen energy that was Earth Day helped to mold an emerging worldview into a real political force.

I might have come late to the party, but Earth Day also molded me. I remember clearly the very large, and very hopeful, Earth Day celebrations in 1990 marking the twentieth anniversary of the original demonstrations. I was 15 years old. My parents took my sister and me to the Earth Day gathering at the Arizona State Capitol. It was probably the first even vaguely political event I had ever been to (my parents weren’t activist types then, though they are now, I’m proud to say). I don’t know how many people were there, but certainly it was thousands upon thousands, which has to be something of an environmental victory in a place like Phoenix. There were lots of speakers and bands and tables full of information. I remember a lot of speeches from the stage about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

The event changed my life. It wasn’t long before I was waging my first environmental campaign: an effort to get my mother to ditch the disposal paper napkins we used at each meal and buy cloth napkins. The campaign was a success – she bought a nice selection of cloth napkins – and I didn’t even need to lock my head to the kitchen table.

All of this is my rather self-indulgent way of explaining why I get a little depressed every spring when Earth Day rolls around. Sure, there are plenty of Earth Day-inspired activities that keep alive the flame of that first protest. San Francisco had a pretty groovy event on Saturday, complete with a rousing march led by Bill McKibben. Tonight in Seattle there’s an “Orca Freedom Concert.” And the good folks at the Earth Day Network continue plugging along to keep this secular holiday meaningful (even if some of the corporate sponsors give me a cognitive dissonance migraine).

Still, I can’t shake the feeling Earth Day has become diminished, has lost some of its original spirit somewhere along the way. This probably has to do with the fact that, being in the environmental news business, I get a lot of inane Earth Day related press releases.

Clearly, something has been lost in translation. For example:

  • A BevMo! Earth Day wine tasting “promoting cork education and awareness” and including a raffle for a pair of flip-flops made from recycled corks.
  • Also on the wine tip, a vine planting and tasting at a Virginia vineyard. Because wine is an “artesian product.” Comes with an “official certificate.”
  • A vibrator giveaway for “Earth-Shattering orgasms.”
  • Buy a gourmet cupcake and help support the creation of a Las Vegas-area nature preserve.
  • NASCAR’s “Race to Green” campaign encouraging us to plant “a tree in an area of devastation across the US.” [sic]
  • Plus advertising pitches in my in-box for SodaStream (“maker of home beverage carbonation systems” working “to expose The Secret Continent” of ocean trash); Safonique (“the first eco-friendly detergent infused with pure aromatherapy”); and Sports Suds (“the eco-friendly, high-performance laundry detergent.)

To belatedly answer Mayor Lindsey’s question, by the time I got to the Sports Suds release, I kind of wanted to die. Some years it can seem that Earth Day isn’t any more green than St. Patrick’s Day.

I probably shouldn’t be such a humbug. I like wine (especially when produced with organic grapes). I eat cupcakes, and would be happier doing so if some of the proceeds went to conservation efforts. I have to wash my clothes somehow. It’s awesome that Soda Stream is trying to raise awareness about plastic pollution.

In a way, the corporate co-optation of Earth Day is a success. It reveals that caring about the environment, if only for a day, has gone mainstream. And, in any case, the beauty of the first Earth Day wasn’t that it was oh-so-radical, but rather that it was so very accessible to all kinds of people. There were plenty of ways to plug in.

What I miss, I guess, in my unlived nostalgia is the edginess of those earlier Earth Days. Encouraging easy, everyday actions that benefit the environment is fantastic – as long as they take someone further down a path of commitment to sustainability. And that’s what I fear we’ve lost. Earth Day, I’m sorry to say, no longer feels like a spark, but rather an echo.

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Bureaucrats expected Les contract controversy (in All)

The Tyee - April 22, 2014 - 12:30pm

British Columbia government communications staff anticipated tough questions from reporters about how much John Les would be paid to co-chair a review of earthquake readiness in the province. Read more ...

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They Are Watching You—How the U.S. Is Secretly Creating a Border Surveillance State

AlterNet.org - April 22, 2014 - 12:26pm
New high-tech gadgetry has nothing to do with saving lives along the Mexican border.

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With the agility of a seasoned Border Patrol veteran, the woman rushed after the students. She caught up with them just before they entered the exhibition hall of the eighth annual Border Security Expo, reaching out and grabbing the nearest of them by the shoulder. Slightly out of breath, she said, “You can’t go in there, give me back your badges.”

The astonished students had barely caught a glimpse of the dazzling pavilion of science-fiction-style products in that exhibition hall at the Phoenix Convention Center. There, just beyond their view, more than 100 companies, including Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Verizon, were trying to sell the latest in futuristic border policing technology to anyone with the money to buy it.

The students from Northeastern Illinois University didn’t happen to fall into that category. An earnest manager at a nearby registration table insisted that, as they were not studying “border security,” they weren’t to be admitted.  I asked him how he knew just what they were studying.  His only answer was to assure me that next year no students would be allowed in at all.

Among the wonders those students would miss was a fake barrel cactus with a hollow interior (for the southern border) and similarly hollow tree stumps (for the northern border), all capable of being outfitted with surveillance cameras. “Anything that grows or exists in nature,” Kurt Lugwisen of TimberSpy told a local Phoenix television station, “we build it.”

Nor would those students get to see the miniature drone -- “eyes in the sky” for Border Patrol agents -- that fits conveniently into a backpack and can be deployed at will; nor would they be able to check out the “technology that might,” as one local Phoenix reporter warned, “freak you out.” She was talking about facial recognition systems, which in a border scenario would work this way: a person enters a border-crossing gate, where an image of his or her face is instantly checked against a massive facial image database (or the biometric data contained on a passport)."If we need to target on any specific gender or race because we're trying to find a subject, we can set the parameters and the threshold to find that person," Kevin Haskins of Cognitec (“the face recognition company”) proudly claimed.

Nor would they be able to observe the strange, two day-long convention hall dance between homeland security, its pockets bursting with their parents’ tax dollars, and private industry intent on creating the most massive apparatus of exclusion and surveillance that has ever existed along U.S. borders.

Border Security Expo 2014 catches in one confined space the expansiveness of a “booming” border market. If you include “cross-border terrorism, cyber crime, piracy, [the] drug trade, human trafficking, internal dissent, and separatist movements,” all “driving factor[s] for the homeland security market,” by 2018 it could reach $544 billion globally. It is here that U.S. Homeland Security officials, local law enforcement, and border forces from all over the world talk contracts with private industry representatives, exhibit their techno-optimism, and begin to hammer out a future of ever more hardened, up-armored national and international boundaries.

The global video surveillance market alone is expected to be a $40 billion industry by 2020, almost three times its $13.5 billion value in 2013. According to projections, 2020 border surveillance cameras will be capturing 3.4 trillion video hours globally. In case you were wondering, that’s more than 340 million years of video footage if you were watching 24 hours a day.

But those students, like most of the rest of us, haven’t been invited to this high energy, dystopian conversation about our future.

And the rebuff is far from a surprise. It has, after all, been less than a year since Edward Snowden emerged on the scene with a portfolio of NSA documents revealing just how vast our national security state has become and how deeply it has reached into our private lives. It has by now created what the Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin have termed “an alternative geography.” And nowhere is this truer than on our borders.

It is in the U.S. borderlands that, as anthropologist Josiah Heyman once wrote, the U.S. government’s modern expertise in creating and tracking "a marked population” was first developed and practiced. It involved, he wrote prophetically, “the birth and development of a... means of domination, born of the mating between moral panics about foreigners and drugs, and a well-funded and expert bureaucracy.”

You may not be able to watch them at the Border Security Expo, but in those borderlands -- make no bones about it -- the Department of Homeland Security, with its tripartite missions of drug interdiction, immigration enforcement, and the war on terror, is watching you, whoever you are. And make no bones about this either: our borders are widening and the zones in which the watchers are increasingly free to do whatever they want are growing.

Tracking a Marked Population

It was mid-day in the Arizona heat during the summer of 2012 and Border Patrol agent Benny Longoria (a pseudonym) and his partner are patrolling the reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation. It’s the second largest Native American reservation in the country and, uniquely, shares 76 miles of border with Mexico. The boundary, in fact, slices right through O’odham aboriginal lands. For the approximately 28,000 members of the Nation, several thousand of whom live in Mexico, this international boundary has been a point of contention since 1853, when U.S. surveyors first drew the line. None of the region’s original inhabitants were, of course, consulted.

Now Tohono O’odham lands on the U.S. side of the border are one place among many in Arizona where the star performer at Border Security Expo, Elbit Systems of America -- whose banner at the entrance welcomed all attendees -- will build surveillance towers equipped with radar and high-powered day/night cameras able to spot a human being up to seven miles away. These towers -- along with motion sensors spread over the surrounding landscape and drones overhead -- will feed information into snazzy operational control rooms in Border Patrol posts throughout the Arizona borderlands.

In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) awarded a $145 million contract to that Israeli company through its U.S. division. Elbit Systems prides itself on having spent “10+ years securing the world’s most challenging borders,” above all deploying similar “border protection systems” to the separation wall between Israel and Palestine. It is now poised to enter U.S. indigenous lands.

At the moment, however, the two forest-green-uniformed Border Patrol agents search for tracks the old-fashioned way. They are five miles west of the O’odham’s sacred Baboquivari mountain range and three miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border. It’s July and 100-plus-degrees hot.  They scour the ground for tracks and finally pick up a trail of fresh ones.

The agents get out of their vehicle and begin to follow them. Every day, many hours are spent just this way. They figure that people who have just walked across the border without papers are hot, uncomfortable, and probably moving slowly. In this heat in this desert, it’s as if you were negotiating the glass inside a light bulb. About an hour on, Longoria spots the woman.

There’s a giant mesquite tree, and she’s beneath it, her back to the agents, her arm shading her head. They creep up on her. As they get closer, they can see that she’s wearing blue jeans and a striped navy shirt.

When they’re 10 feet away and she still hasn’t moved, Longoria whispers, “Oh, shit, why isn’t she reacting?” In Arizona in July, you can almost hear the sizzle of the heat.

In human terms, this is where the long-term strategy behind the Border Patrol’s “prevention through deterrence” regime leads.  After all, in recent years, it has militarized vast swaths of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border. Along it, there are now 12,000 implanted motion sensors and 651 miles of walls or other barriers. Far more than $100 billion has beenspent on this project since 9/11. The majority of these resources are focused on urban areas where people without papers traditionally crossed.

Now, border crossers tend to avoid such high concentrations of surveillance and the patrolling agents that go with it. They skirt those areas on foot, ending up in desolate, dangerous, mountainous places like this one on the sparsely populated Tohono O’odham reservation, an area the size of Connecticut. The Border Patrol’s intense armed surveillance regime is meant to push people into places so remote and potentially deadly that they will decide not to cross the border at all.

That, at least, was the plan. This is the reality.

“Hey,” Longoria says to the woman as he steps up behind her. “Hello.” Nothing.

“Hello,” he says again, as he finally stands over her. And it’s then that he sees her face, blistered from the sun, white pus oozing out of her nose. Her belly has started to puff up.  She is already a corpse.

The moment is surreal and, for Longoria, depressing. In the 1990s, almost no undocumented people bothered to cross this reservation. By 2008, in the midst of an exodus from Mexico in the devastating era of NAFTA, more than15,000 people were doing so monthly. Although the numbers have dropped since, people avoiding the border surveillance regime still come, and sometimes like this woman, they still die.

“The Occupation”

Before 9/11, there was little federal presence on the Tohono O’odham reservation. Since then, the expansion of the Border Patrol into Native American territory has been relentless. Now, Homeland Security stations, filled with hundreds of agents (many hired in a 2007-2009 hiring binge), circle the reservation. But unlike bouncers at a club, they check people going out, not heading in.  On every paved road leaving the reservation, their checkpoints form a second border. There, armed agents -- ever more of whom are veterans of America’s distant wars -- interrogate anyone who leaves. In addition, there are two “forward operating bases” on the reservation, which are meant to play the role -- facilitating tactical operations in remote regions -- that similar camps did in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now, thanks to the Elbit Systems contract, a new kind of border will continue to be added to this layering.  Imagine part of the futuristic Phoenix exhibition hall leaving Border Expo with the goal of incorporating itself into the lands of a people who were living here before there was a “New World,” no less a United States or a Border Patrol. Though this is increasingly the reality from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California, on Tohono O’odham land a post-9/11 war posture shades uncomfortably into the leftovers from a nineteenth century Indian war.  Think of it as the place where the homeland security state meets its older compatriot, Manifest Destiny.

On the gate at the entrance to her house, Tohono O’odham member Ofelia Rivas has put up a sign stating that the Border Patrol can’t enter without a warrant. It may be a fine sentiment, reflecting a right embodied in the U.S. Constitution, but in the eyes of the “law,” it’s ancient history.  Only a mile from the international boundary, her house is well within the 25-mile zone in which the Border Patrol can enter anyone’s property without a warrant. These powers make the CBP a super-force in comparison to the local law enforcement outfits it collaborates with. Although CBP can enter property warrantlessly, it still needs a warrant to enter somebody’s dwelling. In the small community where Rivas lives, known as Ali Jegk, the agents have overstepped even its extra-constitutional bounds with “home invasions” (as people call them).

Throughout the Tohono O’odham Nation, people complain about Homeland Security vehicles driving at high speeds and tailgating on the roads. They complain about blinding spotlights, vehicle pull-overs, and unexpected interrogations. The Border Patrol has pulled O’odham tribal members out of cars, pepper-sprayed them, and beaten them with batons.

As local resident Joseph Flores told a Tucson television station, “It feels like we’re being watched all the time.” Another man commented, “I feel like I have no civil rights.” On the reservation, people speak not only about this new world of intense surveillance, but also about its raw impact on the Tohono O’odham people: violence and subjugation.

Although the tribal legislative council has collaborated extensively with Border Patrol operations, Priscilla Lewis seemed to sum up the sentiments of many O’odham at an open hearing in 2011: “Too much harassment, following the wrong people, always stopping us, including and especially those who look like Mexicans when driving or walking in the desert... They have too much domination over us.”

At her house, Ofelia Rivas tells me a story. One day, she was driving with Tohono O’odham elders towards the U.S.-Mexican border when a low-flying Blackhawk helicopter seemingly picked them up and began following them. Hanging out of the open helicopter doors were CBP gunmen, she said. When they crossed the border into Mexico, the helicopter tracked them through a forest of beautiful saguaro cacti while they headed for a ceremonial site, 25 miles south of the border. They were, of course, crossing what was a non-border to the O’odham, doing something they had done for thousands of years. Hearing, even feeling the vibration of the propellers, one of the elders said, “I guess we are going to die.”

They laughed, Rivas added, as there was nothing else to do. They laughed real hard. Then, a mile or so into Mexico, the helicopter turned back.

Americans may increasingly wonder whether NSA agents are scouring their meta-data, reading their personal emails, and the like.  In the borderlands no imagination is necessary. The surveillance apparatus is in your face. The high-powered cameras are pointed at you; the drones are above you; you’re stopped regularly at checkpoints and interrogated. Too bad if you’re late for school, a meeting, or an appointment. And even worse, if your skin complexion, or the way you’re dressed, or anything about you sets off alarm bells, or there’s something that doesn’t smell quite right to the CBP’s dogs -- and such dogs are a commonplace in the region -- being a little late will be the least of your problems.

As Rivas told me, a typical exchange on the reservation might involve an agent at a checkpoint asking an O’odham woman whether, as she claimed, she was really going to the grocery store -- and then demanding that she show him her grocery list.

People on the reservation now often refer to what is happening as an armed “occupation.” Mike Wilson, an O’odham member who has tried to put gallon jugs of water along routes Mexican migrants might take through the reservation, speaks of the Border Patrol as an “occupying army.” It’s hardly surprising.  Never before in the Nation’s history under Spain, Mexico, or the United States have so many armed agents been present on their land.

On the Borders, the Future Is Now

At the Border Security Expo, Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for the Border Patrol’s Office of Technology, Innovation, and Acquisition, isn’t talking about any of this. He’s certainly not talking about the deaths and abuses along the border, or the firestorm of criticism about the Border Patrol’s use of deadly force. (Agents have shot and killed at least 42 peoplesince 2005.) He is talking, instead, about humdrum things, about procurement and efficiency, as he paces the conference hall, just as he’s done for years. He is talking about the inefficient way crews in Washington D.C. de-iced the wings of his plane before it took off for Phoenix. That is the lesson he wants to drum in about border technology: efficiency.

Borkowski has the air of a man whose agency has everything and yet who wants to appear as if he didn’t have all that much. And the big story in this hall is how little attention anyone outside of it pays to the fact that his is now the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country. Even less attention is paid to how, with its massive growth and robust financing, with its ever increasing budgets and resources, it is reshaping the country -- and the world. Its focus, powerful as it is on the southern border of the U.S., is quickly moving elsewhere -- to the northern border with Canada, to the Caribbean, and to borders and border forces across the globe.

So many places are slated to become the front lines for his agency’s expanding national security regime, and where it goes, technology must follow.  No wonder that the same industry people are here, year after year, devouring Borkowski’s every word in search of clues as to how they can profit from his latest border enforcement schemes. After all, some of the sophisticated technology now on the border was only a futuristic pipe dream 20 years ago.

It’s here at Border Security Expo 2014 that the future seeds get planted; here that you can dream your corporate dreams unimpeded, sure in the knowledge that yet more money will flow into borders and “protection.”

Between the unbridled enthusiasm of the vendors with their techno-optimistic “solutions” and the reality of border life in the Tohono O’odham Nation -- or for that matter just about anywhere along the 2,000-mile divide -- the chasm couldn’t be wider.

On the reservation back in 2012, Longoria called in the GPS coordinates of the unknown dead woman, as so many agents have done in the past and will undoubtedly do in the years to come. Headquarters in Tucson contacted the Tohono O’odham tribal police. The agents waited in the baking heat by the motionless body. When the tribal police pulled up, they took her picture, as they have done with other corpses so many times before. They rolled her over and took another picture. Her body was, by now, deep purple on one side. The tribal police explained to Longoria that it was because the blood settles there. They brought out a plastic body bag.

“Pseudo-speciation,” Longoria told me. That, he said, is how they deal with it. He talked about an interview he’d heard with a Vietnam vet on National Public Radio, who said that to deal with the dead in war, “you have to take a person and change his genus. Give him a whole different category. You couldn’t stand looking at these bodies, so you detach yourself. You give them a different name that detracts from their humanness.”

The tribal police worked with stoic faces. They lifted the body of this woman, whose past life, whose story, whose loved ones were now on another planet, onto a cart attached to an all-terrain vehicle and headed off down a bumpy dirt road with the body bouncing up and down.

When you look at a map that shows where such bodies are recovered in southern Arizona -- journalist Margaret Regan has termed it a “killing field” -- there is a thick red cluster of dots over the Tohono O’odham reservation. This area has the highest concentration of the more than 2,300 remains recovered in Arizona alone -- approximately 6,000 have been found along the whole border -- since the Border Patrol began ramping up its “prevention by deterrence policy” in the 1990s. And as Kat Rodriguez of the Colibri Center for Human Rights points out, these numbers are at the low end of actual border deaths, due to the numbers of remains found that have been there for weeks, months, or even years.

When they reached a paved road, Longoria helped lift the woman’s body into the back of their police truck. From here the Tohono O’odham tribal police took over. He and his partner continued their shift in a world in which borders are everything and a human death next to nothing at all. 

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Clueless Young Billion-Heirs Get Royal Treatment at White House

AlterNet.org - April 22, 2014 - 11:56am
Obama gives the Silver Spoonies a big wet kiss.

Are you young? Largely ignorant of what goes on in the real world? Is your name Rockeller or Marriott? Could you pass for Justin Bieber?

The President wants to see you, baby! Come on up in here.

As economist Thomas Piketty, author of a new blockbuster book on inequality, tours the East Coast warning that America will soon become a place in which inherited wealth means as much — or more — as it did in Downton Abbey Britain, the White House is wasting no time pandering to young people who have grown up in breathtaking privilege. The New York Times reported that the Prez recently invited a passel of fat kittens to an invitation-only summit to "find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth."

Like royal courts in time of yore, when the scions of the wealthy would preen and socialize with others of their ilk, todays oligarchs-in-training are coming to DC to see and be seen, to pay and accept tribute. In order to make things appear less crass than a simple handover of cash, these young folks are invited to indulge their ruminations about improving society — which, as you might imagine, does not involve things like a global wealth tax. Or larger inheritance taxes.

People like 19-year-old Patrick Gage, who will someday inherit from the multi-billion-dollar Carlson hotel fortune, can prattle on about matters like human trafficking and water quality in the Puget Sound, but you'd likely not hear a peep about the gross income and wealth inequality that is strangling our democracy and destabilizing society. For his part, 24-year-old Justin McAuliffe, an heir to the Hilton hotel fortune, was mostly just excited to be around other silver spoonies: “Hilton, Marriott and Carlson..." he commented, according to the NYT report. "That is cool.” Let's hear it for assortive mating!

The wee billionaires were all abuzz about a new fad called "impact investing," also known as social impact bonds, a form of investing that seeks to generate both a social benefit and a profit for rich people that taxpayers are expected to pay if certain conditions are met. (We have given our opinion of social impact bonds with the story of Goldman Sachs and its scheme to profit from prisoner recidivism rates; we remain skeptical.)

If rich people want to do charity, great. And if you want to make an impact on the public good, howsabout paying your freaking share of taxes? You okay with that? Didn't think so.

There's nothing wrong with having civic interests if you are rich, but in an era when our society is so badly out of balance, it sends a powerful signal when the White House rolls out the red carpet for well-heeled youngsters who have little conception of what it's like to have horrid low-wage jobs, crushing student debt, housing you can ill afford, and a shitty social safety net. In other words, the stuff that many other young Americans are forced to deal with. 

The White House has been fondly known as the "People's House." Make that people with piles of cash.

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Brahim Dahane: ‘It is better to die than to live afraid’

New Internationalist - April 22, 2014 - 10:42am
Lydia James talks to the Western Saharan human rights defender about uprisings, refugees and the UN mandate.
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Robert Reich: How to Fix Sky-high CEO Pay in Companies that Pay Workers Like Serfs

AlterNet.org - April 22, 2014 - 10:19am
A new tax would narrow pay discrepancy—and help the economy.

Until the 1980s, corporate CEOs were paid, on average, 30 times what their typical worker was paid. Since then, CEO pay has skyrocketed to 280 times the pay of a typical worker; in big companies, to 354 times.

Meanwhile, over the same thirty-year time span the median American worker has seen no pay increase at all, adjusted for inflation. Even though the pay of male workers continues to outpace that of females, the typical male worker between the ages of 25 and 44 peaked in 1973 and has been dropping ever since. Since 2000, wages of the median male worker across all age brackets has dropped 10 percent, after inflation.

This growing divergence between CEO pay and that of the typical American worker isn’t just wildly unfair. It’s also bad for the economy. It means most workers these days lack the purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing — contributing to the slowest recovery on record. Meanwhile, CEOs and other top executives use their fortunes to fuel speculative booms followed by busts.

Anyone who believes CEOs deserve this astronomical pay hasn’t been paying attention. The entire stock market has risen to record highs. Most CEOs have done little more than ride the wave.

There’s no easy answer for reversing this trend, but this week I’ll be testifying in favor of a bill introduced in the California legislature that at least creates the right incentives. Other states would do well to take a close look.

The proposed legislation, SB 1372, sets corporate taxes according to the ratio of CEO pay to the pay of the company’s typical worker. Corporations with low pay ratios get a tax break.Those with high ratios get a tax increase.

For example, if the CEO makes 100 times the median worker in the company, the company’s tax rate drops from the current 8.8 percent down to 8 percent. If the CEO makes 25 times the pay of the typical worker, the tax rate goes down to 7 percent.

On the other hand, corporations with big disparities face higher taxes. If the CEO makes 200 times the typical employee, the tax rate goes to 9.5 percent; 400 times, to 13 percent.

The California Chamber of Commerce has dubbed this bill a “job killer,” but the reality is the opposite. CEOs don’t create jobs.Their customers create jobs by buying more of what their companies have to sell — giving the companies cause to expand and hire.

So pushing companies to put less money into the hands of their CEOs and more into the hands of average employees creates more buying power among people who will buy, and therefore more jobs.

The other argument against the bill is it’s too complicated. Wrong again. The Dodd-Frank Act already requires companies to publish the ratios of CEO pay to the pay of the company’s median worker (the Securities and Exchange Commission is now weighing a proposal to implement this). So the California bill doesn’t require companies to do anything more than they’ll have to do under federal law. And the tax brackets in the bill are wide enough to make the computation easy.

What about CEO’s gaming the system? Can’t they simply eliminate low-paying jobs by subcontracting them to another company – thereby avoiding large pay disparities while keeping their own compensation in the stratosphere?

No. The proposed law controls for that. Corporations that begin subcontracting more of their low-paying jobs will have to pay a higher tax.  

For the last thirty years, almost all the incentives operating on companies have been to lower the pay of their workers while increasing the pay of their CEOs and other top executives. It’s about time some incentives were applied in the other direction.

The law isn’t perfect, but it’s a start. That the largest state in America is seriously considering it tells you something about how top heavy American business has become, and why it’s time to do something serious about it.

 

 

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The 1% in America Are Turning into a Ruling Oligarchy at an Astonishing Pace

AlterNet.org - April 22, 2014 - 9:38am
At state and local levels, while the poorest fifth of Americans pay an average tax rate of over 11 percent, the richest 1% pay half that rate. The evidence of income inequality just keeps mounting. According to “Working for the Few,” a recent briefing paper from Oxfam, “In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.” Our now infamous one percent own more than 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. Meanwhile, the bottom 40 percent of the country is in debt. Just this past Tuesday, the 15th of April -- Tax Day -- the AFL-CIO reported that last year thechief executive officers of 350 top American corporations were paid 331 times more money than the average US worker. Those executives made an average of $11.7 million dollars compared to the average worker who earned $35,239 dollars. As that analysis circulated on Tax Day, the economic analyst Robert Reich reminded us that in addition to getting the largest percent of total national income in nearly a century, many in the one percent are paying a lower federal tax rate than a lot of people in the middle class. You may remember that an obliging Congress, of both parties, allows high rollers of finance the privilege of “carried interest,” a tax rate below that of their secretaries and clerks. And at state and local levels, while the poorest fifth of Americans pay an average tax rate of over 11 percent, the richest one percent of the country pay — are you ready for this? — half that rate. Now, neither Nature nor Nature’s God drew up our tax codes; that’s the work of legislators — politicians — and it’s one way they have, as Chief Justice John Roberts might put it, of expressing gratitude to their donors: “Oh, Mr. Adelson, we so appreciate your generosity that we cut your estate taxes so you can give $8 billion as a tax-free payment to your heirs, even though down the road the public will have to put up $2.8 billion to compensate for the loss in tax revenue.” All of which makes truly repugnant the argument, heard so often from courtiers of the rich, that inequality doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. Inequality is what has turned Washington into a protection racket for the one percent. It buys all those goodies from government: Tax breaks. Tax havens (which allow corporations and the rich to park their money in a no-tax zone). Loopholes. Favors like carried interest. And so on. As Paul Krugman writes in his New York Review of Books essay on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, “We now know both that the United States has a much more unequal distribution of income than other advanced countries and that much of this difference in outcomes can be attributed directly to government action.” Recently, researchers at Connecticut’s Trinity College ploughed through the data and concluded that the US Senate is responsive to the policy preferences of the rich, ignoring the poor. And now there’s that big study coming out in the fall from scholars at Princeton and Northwestern universities, based on data collected between 1981 and 2002. Their conclusion: “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened… The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Instead, policy tends “to tilt towards the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations.” Last month, Matea Gold of The Washington Post reported on a pair of political science graduate students who released a study confirming that money does equal access in Washington. Joshua Kalla and David Broockman drafted two form letters asking 191 members of Congress for a meeting to discuss a certain piece of legislation. One email said “active political donors” would be present; the second email said only that a group of “local constituents” would be at the meeting. One guess as to which emails got the most response. Yes, more than five times as many legislators or their chiefs of staff offered to set up meetings with active donors than with local constituents. Why is it not corruption when the selling of access to our public officials upends the very core of representative government? When money talks and you have none, how can you believe in democracy? Sad, that it’s come to this. The drift toward oligarchy that Thomas Piketty describes in his formidable new book on capital has become a mad dash. It will overrun us, unless we stop it.  Related Stories
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WATCH: Jon Stewart Skewers Fox for 'Welfare Rancher' Cliven Bundy Hypocrisy

AlterNet.org - April 22, 2014 - 8:34am
'Sean Hannity has made Glenn Beck the voice of reason.'

Jon Stewart returned from vacation Monday night to marvel at the armed standoff that millionaire, nut-case rancher Cliven Bundy has threatened, and the fact that a man who denies the existence of the federal government has been elevated to folk-hero status by . . . yeupp, Sean Hannity.

In a segment called "Apocalypse Cow," the late night comedian easily demonstrated Hannity's hypocrisy when it comes to which law-breakers he approves of, and which he does not. Hannity has fawned all over Bundy for refusing to pay modest grazing fees for the right to graze his cattle on federally-owned land, because Bundy is helping to keep the price of beef down for his fellow Americans. "Yes, most goods are cheaper when you steal the raw materials to make them," Stewart noted.

Hannity has beat up on atheists, protesters and immigration activists on his show in the past, arguing that they have been on the wrong side the law, which is a no-no for the Fox News host. Unless of course, you vote as he does. He also famously beat up on the supposed California surfer living on welfare for "stealing" from the taxpayers. But he seems to have no such condemnation for the "welfare rancher."

Even Glenn Beck has gone on the record as saying that grazing fees are a reasonable price to pay for raising cattle, prompting Stewart to say: "Sean Hannity has now made Glenn Beck the voice of reason."

Not an easy thing to do. Watch the whole hilarious segment:

 

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The Bullet: (Re)Radicalization of the Working Class in Turkey?

Socialist Project - April 22, 2014 - 2:00am
Autonomy, occupation, self-management... these long-forgotten terms are back in Turkey since late 2012-early 2013. There have been several factory occupations since last year. The most prominent ones are, among others, Kazova, Greif, Zentiva, Feni?, Moda Socks Factory, Renault, and ?i?ecam Topkap? workplace occupations.
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Girls Who Get 'Caught in a Bad Romance' Risk More Than Just Their Broken Hearts

AlterNet.org - April 21, 2014 - 4:13pm
A study shows that bad relationships cause girls real damage. The lesson? Teach young women to value themselves.

For high school girls, the reality of romance often feels less like Cinderella and more like Kill Bill. And while the emotional maturity level of your average high school boy definitely doesn't help, the pressure we put on girls to see relationships as cornerstones of their identities is the real culprit.

That's the conclusion of a new study from the University of New Mexico, which found that girls are more likely than boys to experience negative mental health effects when the reality of a given relationship doesn't match up with their expectations of it. "Romantic relationships are particularly important components of girls' identities and are, therefore, strongly related to how they feel about themselves – good or bad," the author of the study, Brian Soller, an assistant professor of sociology and a senior fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, said. "As a result, relationships that diverge from what girls envision for themselves are especially damaging to their emotional well-being."

Boys, Soller said, don't exhibit the same negative emotions because they don't identify themselves according to their relationships. They identify themselves by their interests – including sports and extracurricular activities. So when their romantic relationships aren't what they envisioned, it doesn't feel like as much like a personal failing.

The lesson of the study? Quit teaching girls to define themselves by their romantic relationships.

That teaching happens formally and informally. In many abstinence-based sex education programs, girls play games that include picking all the petals off a rose to symbolize the "fact" that they lose a fundamental part of themselves every time they have sex. At home in two-parent families, girls often see mom doing more of the emotional labor of childcare and partner-care than dad. We celebrate marriages as the most important day of a woman's life, expecting brides to spend thousands planning and executing perfect weddings – but it's much more rare to hear someone tell a groom that the wedding is his "big day," or hear a groom say he wants to look like a prince on his wedding day. Women still overwhelmingly take their husbands' surnames upon marriage, literally naming themselves according to their relationship. And even in the political realm, women routinely reference their roles as mothers and wives alternately to justify an opinion or to soften the threat of their own power – witness Michelle Obama calling herself the "mom in chief," or the legions of writers who cover issues around health and politics but identify as "mom bloggers."

There's nothing wrong with valuing the relationships in your life, romantic and not. For most of us, our relationships are at least one key to our happiness. But happiness is different from identity, and girls grow up not seeing relationships as potential value-adds to an already-rich life, but as the defining factor of that life. Of course they're devastated every time one goes sideways.

We also can't separate what we teach girls about relationships from what we teach them about sex. The study itself looked at expectations of physical intimacy – participants were given cards to indicate what physical acts they would like to see happen in their relationships (hand-holding, kissing, sex) and the order they wanted those acts to happen. A year later, they repeated the process, only this time indicating what actually happened in the relationship. Then, researchers evaluated their mental health, which was often poor.

American girls grow up in a culture where women are ornamental, and a very particular type of woman with a very particular type of body is used to represent sex itself in advertisements for everything from cars to web-hosting. But girls also hear that they are the gatekeepers to sex, that having sex too soon or with too many people will leave them damaged, and that men don't respect the women who sleep with them. Sex, girls learn, is a thing boys want and girls have, but the girls aren't supposed to give it up too easily – and that sex isn't about their own desires, anyway. Yet somehow, if girls just play by these contradictory rules – if they're pretty and sexy, but not sexual or slutty – their Disney-movie Prince Charming will just ride up.

For girls and women, that combination of relational identity and sexual schizophrenia is particularly toxic and soul-crushing. Policy-wise, there's a lot to be done: ending abstinence-only sex ed and finding more funding for a diversity of educational programs including art and music that can help all students forge individual identities and develop their talents would be a start. Outside of schools, policies allowing women to be equal players at work and in life would go a long way in shifting assumptions around female identity. These should include: paid leave for new parents so that moms don't have to choose between work and family and dads are expected to do both as well; wide access to both contraception and abortion with the understanding that women want to have sex for pleasure and not just to reproduce; and state-subsidized childcare so that parents aren't bearing the burden alone.

But profound social shifts are even more important than news laws. Some of those shifts, of course, will come along with more progressive social policies. But some we just have to take responsibility for ourselves, including adult women modelling healthy female self-identity apart from their relationships, and adult men embracing the importance of their relationships and displaying their capacity for caregiving. It also means praising our daughters more often for their talents, abilities and hard work, and not just for their helpfulness, beauty and behavior toward others. It means expecting our sons to be emotionally competent, generous and sensitive to how their actions impact the people around them.

There's no weakness in loving the people you love or in prioritizing your family and significant other. But there are dangers in a model of womanhood defined by sacrifice and folding yourself into others. We all want girls to develop positive self-esteem and feel a strong sense of self-worth. But it's awfully hard to do that in a society where, for girls and women, self-identity is relational and not about yourself at all.

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Three Reasons Why You Should Keep Gmail far Away from Your Credit Card Information

AlterNet.org - April 21, 2014 - 4:03pm
Google’s plot for world domination now includes your credit cards.

Google wants your money. Or, more precisely, Google wants your bank account and credit card info.

At Quartz, Chris Mims reports that Google appears to be accelerating its roll-out of a service that will allow gmail users to send money via email to whomever they want as easily as sending an attachment. Sounds great — but wait, there’s more!

Here’s what’s brilliant about offering the “send money” feature: Google almost certainly doesn’t care whether you use it to send money. What it cares about is getting you to sign up to Google Wallet and capture your bank account and credit-card information. And it’s using Gmail, which has a reach comparable to that of Facebook—425 million as of June 2012, the last time Google released numbers—to do it.

Once Google has your payment info, it can then implement PayPal-like functionality throughout the Google universe — YouTube, search, Maps, you name it. Anywhere you travel online while logged into your Google Account, you will have the ability to click-and-pay.

I can easily see this becoming popular. But here are three reasons to be wary.

1) Your Gmail account is already a hugely tempting target for hackers. Adding your financial info to that account will make it irresistible.

2) Google’s ability to effectively target ads already gives it tremendous power to manipulate consumer behavior. Adding the instant gratification of easy-checkout to those ads will make the company even more powerful.

3) Google already knows far too much about what we want, what we do, where we go, and who we communicate with. Do we really want to complete the chain and give the company our most intimate financial information?

The question posed by Google — and, really, all online Web services. At what point does convenience become vulnerability?

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What's New: Priceless Easter Rising footage made available online

Socialist Project - April 21, 2014 - 4:00pm
A priceless film archive which includes extensive footage of the Easter Rising and its aftermath has been released online by British Pathé. The multimedia resource has made its entire archive, consisting of 3,500 hours of coverage on 85,000 films, available on YouTube.
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Inside the Brutality of Egypt's New Regime: 2,500 Killed, 16,000 Political Prisoners, Torture Allegations Are Widespread

AlterNet.org - April 21, 2014 - 3:53pm
Since the coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's human rights record has gotten much much worse.

After a recent CODEPINK delegation to Egypt ended up in deportations and assault, we have become acutely aware of some of the horrors Egyptians are facing in the aftermath of the July 3 coup that toppled Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. Over 2,500 civilians have been killed in protests and clashes. Over 16,000 are in prison for their political beliefs and allegations of torture are widespread. Millions of people who voted for Morsi in elections that foreign monitors declared free and fair are now living in terror, as are secular opponents of the military regime, and the level of violence is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history. With former Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sisi set to become the next president in sham elections scheduled for May 26-27, the Egyptian military is trampling on the last vestiges of the grassroots uprising that won the hearts of the world community during the Arab Spring.

The most publicized case is the trial of the three Al Jazeera journalists and their co-defendants, charged with falsifying news and working with the Muslim Brotherhood. On April 10, there was a ludicrous update in the trial, when the prosecution came to courtpresenting a video that was supposed to be the basis of their case but consisted of family photos, trotting horses, and Somali refugees in Kenya. The judge dismissed the “evidence” but not the charges.

The high-profile case is just a taste of wide-ranging assault on free expression. The government has closed down numerous TV and print media affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist currents. The Committee to Protect Journalists named Egypt the third deadliest countries for journalists in 2013, just behind Syria and Iraq.

An incident that shows how the judicial branch is now working hand-in-glove with the military is the horrific March 24 sentencing of 529 Morsi supporters to death in one mass trial. The entire group was charged with killing one police officer. The trial consisted of two sessions, each one lasting less than one hour. Secretary of State Kerry said that the sentence “defies logic” and Amnesty International called the ruling “grotesque.”

And if you think that a US passport entitles a prisoner to due process, look at the tragic case of 26-year-old Ohio State University graduate Mohamed Soltan. Soltan served as a citizen journalist, assisting English-speaking media in their coverage of the anti-coup sit-in at Rabaa Square that was violently raided by police and resulted in the death of over 1,000 people. In jail for over 7 months, Soltan has been on a hunger strike since January 26 and is now so weak he can’t walk. His situation in prison has been horrifying. When he was arrested, he had a wound from being shot that had not yet healed. Prison officials refused to treat him, so a fellow prisoner who was a doctor performed surgery with pliers on a dirty prison floor, with no anesthesia. His trial has been postponed several times, and there is no update on when it might actually take place. (Activists in the US are mobilizing on his behalf.)

Female activists also face dehumanizing experiences. In February, four women who were arrested for taking part in anti-military protests say they were subjected to virginity testswhile in custody--a practice that coup leader Abdel al-Sisi has supported. In addition to the horror of virginity tests, Amnesty International has also reported that women in prison in Egypt face harsh conditions, including being forced to sleep on the floor and not being allowed to use the bathroom for 10 hours from 10pm to 8am every day. Egyptian Women Against the Coup and the Arab Organisation for Human Rights has reported beatings and sexual harassment of female prisoners.

The internal crackdown may be getting worse, not better. New counter-terrorism legislationset to be approved by Egypt’s president would give the government increased powers to muzzle freedom of expression and imprison opponents. Two new draft laws violate the right to free expression, including penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment for verbally insulting a public employee or member of the security forces. They broaden the existing definition of terrorism to include actions aimed at damaging national unity, natural resources, monuments, communication systems, the national economy, or hindering the work of judicial bodies and diplomatic missions in Egypt. “The problem with these vaguely worded ‘terrorist offenses’ is that they potentially allow the authorities to bring a terrorism case against virtually any peaceful activist,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International.

The draft legislation also widens the scope for use of the death penalty to include “managing or administering a terrorist group.” The Muslim Brotherhood was labelled a terrorist group by the Egyptian authorities in December (though no factual evidence was provided that it is engaged in terrorist attacks).

The US government refuses to call Morsi’s overthrow a coup, and has continued to give Egypt $250 million in economic support, as well as funds for narcotics controls, law enforcement and military training. But the bulk of the foreign military funding of $1.3 billion has been suspended.

On March 12, Secretary of State Kerry indicated that he wanted to resume the aid and would decide “in the days ahead.” Egypt has long been one of the top recipients of US aid because of its peace treaty with Israel, its control over the Suez Canal and the close ties between the US and Egyptian militaries. To renew the funding, Kerry must certify that Egypt is meeting its commitment to a democratic transition and taking steps to govern democratically. The constitutional referendum was held January 14-15, but opponents werearrested for campaigning for a “no” vote. The May presidential election, taking place under such repressive conditions with the main opposition group banned, will certainly not be free and fair. The same can be said for the parliamentary elections that are expected to occur before the end of July.

“The question is no longer whether Egypt is on the road to democratic transition, but how much of its brute repression the US will paper over,” said Human Rights Watch Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson. “An accurate appraisal of Egypt’s record since the military-backed overthrow of President Morsi would conclude that, far from developing basic freedoms, the Egyptian authorities are doing the opposite.”

The Obama Administration should insist that political dissidents be released, laws restricting public assembly be lifted, the Muslim Brotherhood be declassified as a terrorist organization and allowed to participate in all aspects of public life, and criminal investigations be launched into the unlawful use of lethal force and abuse of detainees by security officials. Only when the Egyptian junta lifts its iron curtain should the US consider resuming military aid.  

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It's a Little Creepy When Political Candidates Send You Mail Tailored to Your Religion

AlterNet.org - April 21, 2014 - 3:25pm
When we use campaigns to exaggerate differences among us, it becomes harder to use the time between them to bind us together.

I wonder if Tavis Smiley got the same Happy Passover mailer from Amy Howorth that I did.

Mr. Smiley and I are neighbors in California's 26th State Senate District, which includes coastal Los Angeles County, Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Amy Howorth, the mayor of Manhattan Beach, is running in an eight-candidate field in the June 3 primary.

If Mayor Howorth sent the mailer to all registered voters in my district, precinct or ZIP code, then Mr. Smiley, a well-known African-American broadcaster, would, like me, have received a lovely photo of her family and dogs at the beach under a Chag Pesach Same'ach banner, and on the reverse a shot of their son Ari and his parents at his bar mitzvah.

But I have a hunch that this was instead a targeted mailer addressed just to Jewish voters.

I don't know which creeps me out more -- the easy commercial availability of Jewish voter mailing lists, or the tribal pitch for my support.

A few years ago, when Target figured out that it could determine which of their customers were pregnant from the prenatal vitamins and other baby supplies showing up on their loyalty cards, they mailed coupons to them for cribs, strollers and other items likely to be on their shopping lists. But there was a backlash. Moms-to-be didn't like the idea of a big company prying into their private lives. So the company, in an inspired marketing move, threw in some lawn mower coupons along with the onesie discounts in order to camouflage Target's targeting.

Mayor Howorth could have done something like that. Even if she'd used the same Jewish mailing list, adding a red herring -- throwing in an ecumenical Easter greeting, say, or some pictures from Ari's recent service trip to an orphanage in Ghana -- might have thrown me off the scent of the ethnic play. Instead, her warm Passover wishes left me wondering what list her campaign had bought, and what other information tied to me and my address is out there for purchase.

The ethnic appeal makes sense. In a field this large, candidates above all need name recognition. On June 3, when I see her name on the ballot, Mayor Howorth wants me to think, "Oh, yeah, the Jewish candidate," not "Who?" I have no doubt that Mayor Howorth holds thoughtful positions on many issues and has experience relevant to being a state senator, but what I know about her so far is, "Jew like you."

Why am I so ambivalent about that?

On one hand, candidates have always appealed to voters on the basis of what they have in common -- religion, race, sex, political party, union membership, you name it. These identity markers serve as proxies for values. If there's a tribe we both belong to, I can trust you to protect my interests. I may forget, or simply not know, where you stand on Governor Jerry Brown's plan to build a bullet train, but if I know that you're "one of us," I'll assume you're likely to think it's a cockamamie bazillion-dollar rathole, or a jobs-creating leap into the future, depending on which "us" you're one of.

On the other hand, I don't like my Jewishness being part of politics, and I don't like other people's religions being part of it, either. I realize that American politics is rife with dog whistling; there is plenty of code available to indicate which tribe is your enemy, and words like "urban" and "Christian" have long been acceptable ways to mobilize one side to put down another. But the American motto is e pluribus unum -- out of many, one. When we use campaigns to exaggerate differences among us, it becomes harder to use the time between them to bind us together.

Of course there isn't any time between campaigns any more. Perpetual polarization is the hallmark of public life. Our tribal affiliations are more than team memberships; they affect how we reason and what we think reality is. This is what research is now finding. Former Washington Post writer Ezra Klein launched his new website, Vox, with an account of Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan's disturbing empirical finding: People count something as evidence not based on its being factual, objective, scientific -- you know, true -- but on whether it's something that people in our tribe believe or not. The tribalization of facts, Kahan told Klein, is "terrifying.... That's what threatens the possibility of having democratic politics enlightened by evidence." Which leads Klein to add, "Washington is a bitter war between two well-funded, sharply defined tribes that have their own machines for generating evidence and their own enforces of orthodoxy. It's a perfect story for making smart people very stupid."

I have no reason to think that Mayor Howarth is anything but an ethical, public-spirited candidate. So, surely, are the other candidates on the ballot. (Disclosure: I know one of them, have met another and know a fair amount about a third, but I'm not giving money to anyone.) I just wish that my reaction to getting her mailer had been, "Happy Passover to you, too," and not wanting to hold my nose.

This is a cross-post of my column in the Jewish Journal. You can reach me there atmartyk@jewishjournal.com

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What's New: Easter factoid

Socialist Project - April 21, 2014 - 3:00pm
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Obama May Grant Clemency to Thousands Convicted of Drug Violations

AlterNet.org - April 21, 2014 - 2:23pm
The Obama Administration continues to rollback oppressive sentences for those with non-violent drug convictions

An unnamed White House official has told Yahoo! News that President Barack Obama is preparing to grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of people who have been imprisoned for non-violent drug violations.

This news comes a few months after the administration's announcement that it has encouraged defense attorneys to suggest inmates who should be considered for early release from prison. This indicates that the Obama administration will continue in its efforts to curtail severe penalties in low-level drug cases.

Late last year, President Obama commuted the sentences of nine people serving time in federal prison for non-violent offenses involving crack cocaine, saying that they had been sentenced under an “unfair system.” There is a huge disparity in sentences handed down between crack and powder cocaine offenses. This has been reduced somewhat by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which brought a long-sought reduction in the penalties for crack cocaine.

The earlier sentencing guidelines, enacted in 1986 (at the peak of the panic over crack), set a five-year minimum sentence for possession of five grams of crack, then worth about $500. Meanwhile, the same penalty applied to those convicted for half a kilogram of powder cocaine, which had a street value of more than $8,000. The results were that federal prosecutors primarily went after small-time dealers and users. Back in 2005, about 55 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants were street dealers.

The Fair Sentencing Act raised the quantity of crack needed to trigger the five-year minimum from five grams to an ounce, and its guidance applies retroactively for many of those already convicted. Yet, only about half the 24,000 federal prisoners serving time for crack cocaine offenses were eligible to have their sentences reduced.

Attorney General Eric Holder has been a harsh critic of the nation's huge incarceration numbers, and has pledged to cut mandatory minimums and further soften sentencing guidelines.

However, despite its earlier justice-reform rhetoric and action, this marks the first time that President Obama is using his executive powers to grant mass clemency for non-violent drug related offenses. He has been under significant public pressure from families of the incarcerated and fair-sentencing groups to act.

“This would be a positive step toward righting the wrongs of our broken criminal justice system,” said Anthony Papa, a spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York in 1997 after serving 12 years under the state's notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. “I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families.”

 “With half a million people still behind bars on non-violent drug charges, clearly thousands are deserving of a second chance. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for non-violent drug offenses,” said Papa.

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What's New: A raft of solid left wing policy

Socialist Project - April 21, 2014 - 2:00pm
Left Unity's recent national conference saw delegates come together in Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry to make decisions about the policy of this new party. The party's founding conference in November set Left Unity's broad direction as a new party of the left and set up its constitution. This conference looked in more detail at policy areas including economics, health, housing and anti-racism.
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The Govt. Could Be Using Drano Flavored Jell-o for All We Know to Execute Inmates

AlterNet.org - April 21, 2014 - 1:02pm
We’re running out of toxic methods to kill people legally, and so the govt. has taken to hiding what's in its special sauce.

You’d think that we Americans would have enough stuff to worry about. Severe drought desiccating a third of the country. A political system whose major talent is demonstrating stasis in action. The rich using the poor as fleshy paving stones for the road to mansions on the hill. Ben Affleck as Batman.

But, guess what — apparently not enough stuff to worry about, because now we’re running out of ways to kill people. Legally, that is. Accidentally and illegally we’re doing just fine. Might even say it’s become a robust and vigorous pursuit.

Talking about carrying out the death penalty. Although the word “penalty” always seems to criminally understate the case. Over the years, civilizations have evolved in how to rid themselves of their various nefarious. They cycled through stoning, strangulation, beheading, death by 1000 cuts, hanging, firing squad, guillotine, electric chair, before finally settling on poison, deemed the most humane. First the gas chamber and now, even more humane, lethal injection. So humane, we swab the injection point with alcohol, which is like repainting the shutters before burning down a house.

Problem is, the producer of the go-to-lethal injection drug, Thiopental, stopped making it. States turned to a different drug called Pentobarbital, but the Danish manufacturer didn’t enjoy being associated with executions, and pulled the plug. Now, the states’ Departments of Killing People on Purpose are resorting to unreliable and possibly illegal sources, and refusing to reveal those methods; meaning for all we know, they could be shooting inmates up with Drano flavored Jell-O.

These punishments are being carried out on behalf of We the People: so We the People should have a say in the process. It’s the 21st Century, for crum’s sake. Why not kill the condemned creatively? Film it for pay-per-view. Strike a deal with Amazon Prime and make some coin on the back end. There’s tons of ways to end a miscreant’s life that would be a barrel of fun to watch and still insure justice gets done.

For instance, imagine the merriment to be shared if a convicted man were forced to spend an entire evening in the company of Joan Rivers. Death would not only be instantaneous, it would be hilarious.

Or what if one of the soon-to-be-deceased were dispatched to act as Chris Christie’s pedicab driver when visiting Atlantic City?

Perhaps a position could be arranged as Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian food taster.

Becoming Barack Obama’s personal pollster would certainly drive any sane man mad.

Sentencing denizens of death row to carry Michael Bloomberg’s ego might be an amusing spectacle. Or would that be considered cruel and unusual?

Assign one as sole salesmen at the only New York City based Foot Locker to distribute the next re-release of Air Jordan classics.

Forced to endure an entire season on Dancing With the Stars as Chelsea Handler’s partner. An excruciating proposition.

Spend the Christmas season in Times Square dressed in the Disney character costume of Iago from Aladdin.

Got 3 words for you, people: CSI: Miami binge-a-thon.

And finally, the state could force the reprobate to wear Google Glass into dive bars all over the Mission District of San Francisco. And the beauty of it is: they function as their own cameraman.

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The Right’s New Racial Math: How Its View of Non-white Voters Got So Demented

AlterNet.org - April 21, 2014 - 12:38pm
Seemingly every time they talk about the Obama coalition, conservative dolts reveal a disturbing bias. Here's why.

The news is so depressing for conservatives these days. All the demographic trends are moving against them.With every election showing a large majority of single women, young people and people of color voting for the Democrats, thus solidifying their identification with the party, the less likely it is that Republicans can outrun the shift to a multiracial majority. But they still don’t seem to understand exactly what this means for them.

Take, for example, Michael Medved’s latest in the Wall Street Journal in which he explains that the Democrats’ strategy of wooing women voters by pointing out the GOP’s hostility to reproductive rights and equal pay is nothing but a sham. Sure, Barack Obama won the female vote by a commanding 11 points in the last election but it’s not as if he won a mandate for his message. After all, he lost the white female vote:

A closer look at the numbers reveals that Mr. Obama’s success with the ladies actually stemmed from his well-known appeal to minority voters. In 2012, 72% of all women voters identified themselves as “white.” This subset preferred Mitt Romney by a crushing 14-point advantage, 56% to 42%. Though Democrats ratcheted up the women’s rhetoric in the run-up to Election Day, the party did poorly among the white women it sought to influence: The Republican advantage in this crucial segment of the electorate doubled to 14 points in 2012 from seven points in 2008. In the race against Mr. Romney, Obama carried the overall female vote—and with it the election—based solely on his success with the 28% of women voters who identified as nonwhite. He carried 76% of Latina women and a startling 96% of black women.

The same discrepancy exists when considering marital status. In 2012, nearly 60% of female voters were married, and they preferred Mr. Romney by six points, 53% to 46%. Black and Latina women, on the other hand, are disproportionately represented among unmarried female voters, and they favored Mr. Obama by more than 2-to-1, 67% to 31%.

A similar pattern emerges among young voters, suggesting the president’s popularity among millennials also came from racial minorities, not any special resonance with young people. While nonwhites compose 28% of the electorate-at-large, they make up 42% of voters ages 18-29. Mr. Obama won these young voters handily—60% to 37%. He lost young white voters by seven points, 51% to 44%.

If the majority of women who vote for Democrats are young, single and black or brown, how can anyone say the war on women was a legitimate issue? True, those votes do come in mighty handy Election Day but let’s take a look at the reality: If young, female racial minorities couldn’t vote, the Republicans would win in a landslide!

I’m sure this makes them feel better. The right women are all on their side. Well, actually it’s just a small majority, even by that unfortunate standard: 46 percent of white women went with the Democrats so I wouldn’t be too sure that they’ve got them quite as locked up as Medved supposes.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard such embarrassing rationalizations coming from the Republicans after a loss. They often explain that they actually won — it was just all those young nonwhites who messed up the proper results. Take this one from Romney’s adviser Stuart Stevens who explained his boss’s loss this way:

On Nov. 6, Mitt Romney carried the majority of every economic group except those with less than $50,000 a year in household income. That means he carried the majority of middle-class voters. While John McCain lost white voters under 30 by 10 points, Romney won those voters by seven points, a 17-point shift.”

There was a time not so long ago when the problems of the Democratic Party revolved around being too liberal and too dependent on minorities. Obama turned those problems into advantages and rode that strategy to victory. But he was a charismatic African American president with a billion dollars, no primary and media that often felt morally conflicted about being critical. How easy is that to replicate?

It’s interesting how he assumed that none of the African-Americans, women and young people who voted for Obama are middle-class. But then that was the campaign that famously derided “the 47 percent” for being parasites so it’s not all that surprising. He also assumes that the “minorities” the Democrats are traditionally “too dependent” upon will not vote in future elections and thus deliver the presidency to the candidate who represents what are apparently the Real Americans: white people who make over 50K a year.

None of this is to say that studying the demographics of the voting public is unacceptable. It’s a big part of American politics, and slicing and dicing the electorate is how the two parties strategize their campaigns and that’s fine. But to constantly bring up the fact that Democrats can’t win if they don’t have the votes of racial minorities and young people implies that there’s something not quite legitimate about it.

As Politico helpfully spelled out for us in 2012:

If President Barack Obama wins, he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites. That’s what the polling has consistently shown in the final days of the campaign. It looks more likely than not that he will lose independents, and it’s possible he will get a lower percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters in 2000.

A broad mandate this is not.

Right. The popular choice of all racial minorities, unmarried women and urban whites of of all ages isn’t a mandate. It doesn’t include enough of the right kind of votes. You know, the best kind. The older, rural, married white kind. Also known as “Republicans.”

Michael Medved, at least, understands the GOP’s demographic challenge, even as he foolishly discounts the salience of issues that directly affect half the population, regardless of race or age. He counsels the Republicans to forget women and work harder to attract racial minorities. Here’s a tip, free of charge: A good first step would be to stop talking about their votes as if they aren’t quite as valuable as white votes.

 

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