Sunday, May 22, 2011

Racism in America: Still Keeping Minorities at Bay

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration.

Still Separate and Unequal, Generations After Brown v. Board
By Julianne Hing / 22 May 2011

May 17 marked the 57th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that declared racial segregation in U.S. public schools unconstitutional. Also today, American schools are more segregated than they were four decades ago.

If eradicating racial segregation in education was the original civil rights battle, it continues to be the most enduring one. A court decision that called "separate but equal" schools unlawful led to a couple hopeful decades of racial integration. But today most U.S. kids go to schools that are both racially and socioeconomically homogeneous.

Around 40 percent of black and Latino students in the U.S. are in schools than are over 90 percent black and Latino, according to a 2009 study by UCLA's Civil Rights Project. The schools that black and Latino kids are concentrated in are very often high-poverty schools, too. The average black student goes to a school where 59 percent of their classmates live in poverty, while the average Latino student goes to a school that's 57 percent poor.

And it's not just blacks and Latinos who are racially isolated. White students go to schools that are 77 percent white, and 32 percent poor.

The Obama administration, which is leading an aggressive school reform agenda, knows what's going on. In a major speech calling for the overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged in understated terms the re-segregation of U.S. schools, as well as the fatigue with everything that's been attempted to address it.

"Most minorities were still isolated in their own classrooms," Duncan said of students growing up in the civil rights era, adding, "Many still are today, and we must work together to change that."

"We've had five decades of reforms, countless studies, watershed reports like 'A Nation at Risk,' and repeated affirmations and commitments from the body politic to finally make education a national priority," Duncan said. "And yet we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future."

But the Obama administration has been otherwise silent on re-segregation in schools, even as its reform policies have targeted poor communities of color where the lowest-performing schools are located. Twenty-first century racial homogeneity in U.S. schools is a product of decades of regressive court decisions as well as residential segregation.

"There are no significant state or federal programs and little private philanthropy addressing policy to either produce better integrated schools with more racial and economic diversity or to train teachers and students about ways to more effectively run impoverished multiracial schools," wrote the UCLA study's author Gary Orfield.

Part of it comes from collective fatigue. The initial, post-Brown push for integrated classrooms gave way over the years to wars over busing and several Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s that forced schools to drop race as a consideration for dealing with school assignments. The Court's 2007 decision limiting Seattle and Louisville school districts from implementing desegregation policies completed its long slide away from Brown v. Board. Meanwhile, education advocates shifted their calls from demands for integration to calls for equity. Alongside that shift, a numbers and testing obsession was taking hold, catalyzed by the 1983 "A Nation at Risk" report Duncan named. That obsession now dominates education reform.

Integrating schools is still a worthwhile goal. Researchers have found that desegregation, while always thorny politically, is one of the most direct methods for raising the education achievement of students of color, especially those that are poor. Columbia University researchers found that when they controlled for other outside socioeconomic factors, students in schools where black and Latino kids were isolated from kids of other races had fewer math and literacy skills -- that their educational development was in effect limited by the racial composition of their schools.

And researchers at the University of Connecticut evaluated new strategies like those popularized by North Carolina's Wake County school district. There, students in wealthier neighborhoods can attend magnet schools in poorer neighborhoods, while students in poorer neighborhoods attend schools in wealthier neighborhoods. Student achievement improved in the system. As an added bonus, researchers also found that allowing kids of different backgrounds to hang out with each other improved students' racial attitudes about each other.

Still, courts and tea partier-dominated school boards have continually hampered integration efforts.

Today, the major thrusts of education reform, echoed and pushed in Obama administration policy, are teacher accountability through testing and charter-school expansion. In this iteration of the school reform saga, race is everywhere -- acknowledging the existence of the achievement gap is an uncontroversial statement these days. But actually naming, and addressing, the roots of educational inequities is passé.

As the Economic Policy Institute's Richard Rothstein told me when I was researching the impacts of the recession on education in communities of color, "Everybody acknowledges differences in achievement but nobody wants to address the inequalities that produce them."

Indeed, the discourse today is schizophrenic in many ways. Teachers, for instance, are singled out as both the ultimate solutions to and the biggest culprits for our nation's education woes. Duncan and his colleagues, the celebrity school reformers like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, and the big-city mayors who've backed their reforms often laud and eviscerate teachers in the same breath.

The Obama administration has made adopting punitive teacher accountability policies that evaluate teachers based on their students' test scores a requirement for states that want some federal education money. Through Race to the Top, Obama's marquee education reform project, states have been asked to adopt merit-pay schemes that also tie teachers' jobs to their students' performance on standardized tests. States have also been asked to lift caps on charter schools and designate failing schools for takeover by, among other entities, outside charter groups.

States are not, however, rewarded for adopting the integration policies that education researchers have found to create such change.

"What's missing from the debate is a recognition that teachers and schools alone are not the most important influence on a child's achievement," said Rothstein.

A coalition of race-conscious reformers are promoting a plan they've dubbed the Bolder, Broader Approach to Education, which pushes for a racially explicit and holistic approach to addressing education inequity. There's noticeably no mention of teacher accountability schemes in the three-point version of that plan. It instead calls for high quality early education for all kids, starting from birth and going all the way up through pre-kindergarten. It also calls for high-quality and consistent after school and summer programs for kids, and routine and preventative health care for kids.

"Low-income children have 30 percent more absences than middle-class kids just due to health alone," Rothstein said. The idea is to mimic the supports that middle-class kids have regular access to. "Unless we do something there's still going to be something that's much more important influencing kids' education than the quality of their teachers."

It's not simply a matter of misplaced priorities. Where educational inequities are concerned, the diagnosis has always been easier than deciding on the course of treatment. Nearly 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we've yet to resolve the fundamental question of how to deliver high quality public education to kids of all races.

And after decades of wrangling over possible fixes, the de facto re-segregation of American schools is something that the education reform movement, including the Obama administration, have all but given up on addressing. If integrating public schools was once the answer to bringing equity to the classroom, these days, most people are too fatigued and frustrated to even try.

But now more than ever, mustering the energy to address, head-on, the roots of educational inequities is an issue of utmost urgency. Students of color are 44 percent, and growing, of the U.S. public school system. Racial segregation is a legacy we've yet to shake off, nowhere more than in American public schools, where students of color are educated in schools that are today both separate and unequal.

Source / Facing South

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Did Anyone Mention You're Being Watched?

The always-expanding bipartisan Surveillance State
By Glenn Greenwald / 20 May 2011

When I wrote earlier this week about Jane Mayer's New Yorker article on the Obama administration's war on whistleblowers, the passage I hailed as "the single paragraph that best conveys the prime, enduring impact of the Obama presidency" included this observation from Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin: "We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state." There are three events -- all incredibly from the last 24 hours -- which not only prove how true that is, but vividly highlight how it functions and why it is so odious.

First, consider what Democrats and Republicans just jointly did with regard to the Patriot Act, the very naming of which once sent progressives into spasms of vocal protest and which long served as the symbolic shorthand for Bush/Cheney post-9/11 radicalism:

Top congressional leaders agreed Thursday to a four-year extension of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act, the controversial law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks that governs the search for terrorists on American soil.

The deal between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner calls for a vote before May 27, when parts of the current act expire. The idea is to pass the extension with as little debate as possible to avoid a protracted and familiar argument over the expanded power the law gives to the government. . . .

From its inception, the law's increased surveillance powers have been criticized by liberals and conservatives alike as infringements on free speech rights and protections against unwarranted searches and seizures.

Some Patriot Act opponents suggest that Osama bin Laden's demise earlier this month should prompt Congress to reconsider the law, written when the terrorist leader was at the peak of his power. But the act's supporters warn that al-Qaida splinter groups, scattered from Pakistan to the United States and beyond, may try to retaliate.

"Now more than ever, we need access to the crucial authorities in the Patriot Act," Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This will be the second time that the Democratic Congress -- with the support of President Obama (who once pretended to favor reforms) -- has extended the Patriot Act without any changes. And note the rationale for why it was done in secret bipartisan meetings: to ensure "as little debate as possible" and "to avoid a protracted and familiar argument over the expanded power the law gives to the government." Indeed, we wouldn't want to have any messy, unpleasant democratic debates over "the expanded power the law gives to the government." Here we find yet again the central myth of our political culture: that there is too little bipartisanship when the truth is there is little in Washington but that. And here we also find -- yet again -- that the killing of Osama bin Laden is being exploited to justify a continuation, rather than a reduction, in the powers of the National Security and Surveillance States.

Next we have a new proposal from the Obama White House to drastically expand the scope of "National Security Letters" -- the once-controversial and long-abused creation of the Patriot Act that allows the FBI to obtain private records about American citizens without the need for a subpoena or any court approval -- so that it now includes records of your Internet activities:

White House proposal would ease FBI access to records of Internet activity

The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual's Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.

The administration wants to add just four words -- "electronic communication transactional records" -- to a list of items that the law says the FBI may demand without a judge's approval. Government lawyers say this category of information includes the addresses to which an Internet user sends e-mail; the times and dates e-mail was sent and received; and possibly a user's browser history. . .

Stewart A. Baker, a former senior Bush administration Homeland Security official, said the proposed change would broaden the bureau's authority. "It'll be faster and easier to get the data," said Baker, who practices national security and surveillance law. "And for some Internet providers, it'll mean giving a lot more information to the FBI in response to an NSL." . . .

To critics, the move is another example of an administration retreating from campaign pledges to enhance civil liberties in relation to national security. The proposal is "incredibly bold, given the amount of electronic data the government is already getting," said Michelle Richardson, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel.

The critics say its effect would be to greatly expand the amount and type of personal data the government can obtain without a court order. "You're bringing a big category of data -- records reflecting who someone is communicating with in the digital world, Web browsing history and potentially location information -- outside of judicial review," said Michael Sussmann, a Justice Department lawyer under President Bill Clinton who now represents Internet and other firms.

So first they conspire with the GOP to extend the Patriot Act without any reforms, then seek to expand its most controversial and invasive provisions to obtain the Internet activities of American citizens without having to bother with a subpoena or judicial approval -- "they" being the Democratic White House.

Most critically, the government's increased ability to learn more and more about the private activities of its citizens is accompanied -- as always -- by an ever-increasing wall of secrecy it erects around its own actions. Thus, on the very same day that we have an extension of the Patriot Act and a proposal to increase the government's Internet snooping powers, we have this:

The Justice Department should publicly release its legal opinion that allows the FBI to obtain telephone records of international calls made from the U.S. without any formal legal process, a watchdog group asserts.

The nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation alleges in a lawsuit filed Thursday that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel violated federal open-records laws by refusing to release the memo.

The suit was prompted in part by McClatchy's reporting that highlighted the existence of the memo and the department's refusal to release it. Earlier this year, McClatchy also requested a copy and was turned down.

The decision not to release the memo is noteworthy because the Obama administration -- in particular the Office of Legal Counsel -- has sought to portray itself as more open than the Bush administration was. By turning down the foundation's request for a copy, the department is ensuring that its legal arguments in support of the FBI's controversial and discredited efforts to obtain telephone records will be kept secret.

What's extraordinary about the Obama DOJ's refusal to release this document is that it does not reveal the eavesdropping activities of the Government but only its legal rationale for why it is ostensibly permitted to engage in those activities. The Bush DOJ's refusal to release its legal memos authorizing its surveillance and torture policies was unquestionably one of the acts that provoked the greatest outrage among Democratic lawyers and transparency advocates (see, for instance, Dawn Johnsen's scathing condemnation of the Bush administration for its refusal to release OLC legal reasoning: "reliance on 'secret law' threatens the effective functioning of American democracy" and "the withholding from Congress and the public of legal interpretations by the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) upsets the system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government."

The way a republic is supposed to function is that there is transparency for those who wield public power and privacy for private citizens. The National Security State has reversed that dynamic completely, so that the Government (comprised of the consortium of public agencies and their private-sector "partners") knows virtually everything about what citizens do, but citizens know virtually nothing about what they do (which is why WikiLeaks specifically and whistleblowers generally, as one of the very few remaining instruments for subverting that wall of secrecy, are so threatening to them). Fortified by always-growing secrecy weapons, everything they do is secret -- including even the "laws" they secretly invent to authorize their actions -- while everything you do is open to inspection, surveillance and monitoring.

This dynamic threatens to entrench irreversible, absolute power for reasons that aren't difficult to understand. Knowledge is power, as the cliché teaches. When powerful factions can gather unlimited information about citizens, they can threaten, punish, and ultimately deter any meaningful form of dissent: J. Edgar Hoover infamously sought to drive Martin Luther King, Jr. to suicide by threatening to reveal King's alleged adultery discovered by illicit surveillance; as I described earlier today in my post on New York's new Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer was destroyed in the middle of challenging Wall Street as the result of a massive federal surveillance scheme that uncovered his prostitution activities. It is the rare person indeed with nothing to hide, and allowing the National Security State faction unfettered, unregulated intrusive power into the private affairs of citizens -- as we have been inexorably doing -- is to vest them with truly awesome, unlimited power.

Conversely, allowing government officials to shield their own conduct from transparency and (with the radical Bush/Obama version of the "State Secrets privilege") even judicial review ensures that National Security State officials (public and private) can do whatever they want without any detection and (therefore) without limit or accountability. That is what the Surveillance State, at its core, is designed to achieve: the destruction of privacy for individual citizens and an impenetrable wall of secrecy for those with unlimited surveillance power. And as these three events just from the last 24 hours demonstrate, this system -- with fully bipartisan support --- is expanding more rapidly than ever.

UPDATE: I confused the timing of the second incident I mentioned here: the White House's proposal to expand NSL's to include Internet records. That actually occurred last July. But I also neglected to include in this list the Obama White House's September demands that all ISP's and manufacturers of electronic communication devices (such as Blackberries) provide "backdoors" for government surveillance, so that bolsters the points I made here.

UPDATE II: So patently illegal is Obama's war in Libya as of today that media reports are now coming quite close to saying so directly; see, for instance, this unusually clear CNN article today from Dana Bash. As a result, reporters today bombarded the White House with questions about the war's legality, and here is what happened, as reported by ABC News' Jake Tapper:

Talk about "secret law." You're not even allowed to know the White House's rationale (if it exists) for why this war is legal. It simply decrees that it is, and you'll have to comfort yourself with that. That's how confident they are in their power to operate behind their wall of secrecy: they don't even bother any longer with a pretense of the most minimal transparency.

Source / Salon

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Aggressive Sex and Capitalism Linked by Characteristic Behaviors

Strauss-Kahn and The Secret Culture of Aggressive Sexuality
By Danny Schechter / May 21, 2011

My colleague Mike Whitney asks: “So, what are the chances that Strauss-Kahn will get a fair trial now that he's been blasted as a serial sex offender in about 3,000 articles and in all the televised news reports?

Do you remember any Wall Street bankers being dragged off in handcuffs when they blew up the financial system and bilked people out of trillions of dollars?"

The answer to both questions is certainly Non in French or No in English, but there’s more to the connection between Sex and Wall Street. Without commenting on the evidence in this case -- which has been asserted, not proven -- there is a deeper context that is being ignored.

I call it the Testosterone Factor in The Crime of Our Time, my book about how Wall Street criminally engineered the financial crisis.

Interesting isn’t it that there have been so few references to the link between the pervasiveness of salacious sex and the highly-charged life of a class of “entitled” wealthy bankers who live off of others with few rules or restraints.

There is also often no news about that or the practices of the IMF which is often accused of raping poor and vulnerable countries with unfair structural adjustment programs. The IMF chief is now experiencing what many in France feel is an unfair “personal adjustment program” at the hands of the New York cops and courts.

Odd isn’t it that there have been so few references in the coverage also to Eliot Spitzer, the one time “Sheriff” of Wall Street who was denouncing criminal financial practices by the Bush Administration when he was brought down in a sex scandal.

Strauss-Kahn had also been in the news lately as a possible Socialist presidential candidate to topple our pal Sarkosy in France as well as a critic of US banking practices. He recently outraged official Washington by asserting that the Chinese economy was surpassing ours.

In both cases, powerful forces have motives to bring down such potential reformers, but, it is also true, that in each case, these men themselves were, on the surface anyway, sexually obsessed and prone to illegal behavior that put them—and others—at risk.

Both are Alpha Males known for pushing envelopes of personal responsibility. Both were known for personal arrogance and living in highly secretive sexualized personal cultures. Writer Tristan Banon claimed she had to fight DSK off in an earlier incident, calling him a “strutting chimpanzee.”

Bear in mind also that part of what intelligence agencies do these days in targeting people is to prepare sophisticated psychological profiles before they intervene. They know that the knowledge of the secret lives -- and kinks -- of public figures can easily discredit them. They specialize in foraging for dirt and can leak information or use it opportunistically.

Remember Richard Nixon’s authorized break in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist pursuing highly personal information?

Nothing is off-limits as people like former weapons inspector Scott Ritter learned when he became embroiled in a mini-sex caper.

When people are highly stressed, they are prone to making mistakes. The agencies shadowing them know that, and from time to time encourage it or just wait for the opportunity to help them bring themselves down.

What needs to be examined is how the crimes of the rich and powerful are treated. Bush’s bombing or Geithner’s tax maneuvers were ignored.

But when sex is involved, all bets are off.

Sex scandals have become a staple of media exploitation with personal morality plays trumping political morality confrontations every time.

They are both great distractions and effective tools of character assassination which are often more effective than more violent ways to neutralize people considered dangerous.

That’s why the FBI was so hot to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with leaks of so-called wiretapped sex tapes. In his case, this tactic failed but the other worked.

In some cases both tactics are deployed as in the physical assassination of Bin Laden and then the character-killing aimed at his supporters through the release of porn allegedly found in his “lair.”

Intense sexual appetites are an extension of the “culture” of an avaricious financial world. Illegal sex and Wall Street (or in La Defense, France’s financial district) has long been linked, writes Heidi Moore:

“This is all a reminder that the financial district hasn’t always been gleaming skyscrapers and Starbucks.”

Consider this passage from City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920: “Adjacent to the Wall Street business district, prostitutes worked in saloons along Greenwich Street, taking men upstairs. In addition, immediately south of Wall Street was the Battery Tender- loin, on Whitehall Street. The Water Street area, however, remained the most significant and poorest waterfront zone of prostitution. Amid the rookeries, rat pits and dance halls, prostitutes exposed in each window to the public view plied their trade.”

In the modern era, many of the street’s most macho traders are, according to David Russell who worked in the industry for two decades, known as “swinging dicks.” It is well known that the big money in Wall Street has kept a vibrant, upscale sex industry alive and well.

There has been one scandal after another. Here are a few cases cited by Moore before Spitzer’s demise:

• BP Chief Executive John Browne left both his post at the oil company and his directorship at Goldman Sachs Group last year after it was revealed that Lord Browne had lied to a court about his young male lover, whom he had met through an escort-service Web site.

• A group of six women sued Dresdner Kleinwort in 2006 for $1.4 billion on allegations that male executives entertained clients at strip clubs and even brought prostitutes back to the office. The case was settled out of court in 2007.

• Canadian hedge fund manager Paul Eustace in 2007, by his own admission in a deposition filed in court lied to investors and cheated on his wife with a stripper.

• In 1987, Peter Detwiler, vice chairman of E.F. Hutton & Co., was, according to court testimony, instructed by his client, Tesoro Petroleum Corp. Chairman Robert V. West, to hire a blonde prostitute for the finance minister of Trinidad & Tobago, which had been supporting a tax issue that would have hurt Tesoro’s profits.

• A woman claiming to have been Bernard Madoff’s mistress published a book about their secret liaisons. Earlier, his secretary said he had a fondness for massages in an article in Vanity Fair.

Wall Street’s fall is said to have brought down the sex industry almost as if it had been a fully owned subsidiary, if not an extension, of the financial services business.

To find out more, I spoke to Jonathan Albert, a psychologist practicing in mid-Manhattan. He told me, “I see a lot of clients in NYC who are impacted by the economic crisis. People deal with stress in many different ways. Some people exercise, some people over-eat, some use drugs and alcohol, some even sexualize those feelings.”

“Sexualize?” I asked him, how do they sexualize these feelings?

His response, “I’ve seen a lot of Wall Streeters who sexualize feelings of anxiety and stress and depression. So for example they might rely on adult sexual services to deal with those feelings.”

Loretta Napoleoni, an Italian author, who worked on Wall Street for years, offers a provocative thesis for how the need for paid sex “on the wild side” became part of the culture of irresponsibility.

“I can tell you that this is absolutely true because being a woman, having worked in finance 20 years ago I could tell you that even at that time – when the market was not going up so much – these guys, all they talk is sex.”

She complemented her personal experience by citing a study by researchers from Oxford University.

“The study discovered, that an excessive production of testosterone, in a period of fantastic financial exuberance, creates a sort of confusion. It is what people in sports call ‘being in the zone,’ which means you get in a certain situation where you feel that you will always win. That you are infallible.”

I asked Dr. Albert if that finding may have indeed had relevance to Spitzer or be endemic in the industry? His reply, “I do see this a lot in the finance industry, yes, people in positions of power often feel as if they can perhaps get away with it. There is sometimes a sense of entitlement.”

“They feel entitled to take part in risky behavior?” I pressed.

“High-risk behavior. It’s similar to what they do on a daily basis. They invest millions and millions of dollars and there is a great risk involved with that. The same is true with using the services of a prostitute. Obviously there are great health risks; their relationship is in great danger if they are using the services of a prostitute.

“A lot of people skate on the excitement, on that euphoric rush.”

The culture of risk on Wall Street was intoxicating to many in the same way that gamblers become addicted or report a rush when they are winning.

The euphoria of life in the fast lane often implodes when one’s luck runs out leading to depression and family breakups. One remedy is going to self-help groups like the ‘Wall Street Wives Club’ formed to empower and serve the needs of wives and girlfriends whose husbands or significant others work in the stressful and volatile brokerage community.

Men are often uncomfortable expressing their feelings.”

Some of Dr. Albert’s clients coped with the pressures on them to perform in kinkier ways.

“.... they just want to let loose, relax and take a very passive role in their sexual practice. So they may seek out the services of a dominatrix, where they are at the mercy of this sex worker. I’ve had clients who seek out services where they get whipped, cuffed, put on a leash like a dog.”

Beating others can also be part of this culture. There is violence lurking to the surface that can easily erupt when desires are denied.

I am not being moralistic here, but a climate of narcissism and living secret lives often desensitizes its practitioners leaving them little time to think of how their actions may affect others. (Or how the policies they promote impact on their customers or the poor!)

None of this context excuses anything that Strauss-Kahn may or may not have done, but what it does do is shine some light on a culture of aggressive power-driven hyper-sexuality that our media is often too hypocritical to investigate.

[News Dissector Danny Schechter elaborates on this issue in his book The Crime of Our Time and in a DVD extra to his film Plunder The Crime of Our Time. ( Comments to]

Source / ZNet

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Rapture Index: 'Fasten Your Seat Belts'

Hi! In three days you will all be dead
By Mark Morford / May 18, 2011

Good news for you! All worries, over soon. All concerns laid to rest. Everything transformed in a white-hot eyeblink of OMG WTF into a lukewarm puddlepool of odious harp music, angel squeals and tepid moral pudding. I know, right? Finally!

This much we know: In a mere 72 hours (give or take, time zone depending, sometime before brunch) millions of true believers shall be whisked off to a cloudless overlit megadome where no one has sex and no one reads books and everyone is huddled together in a massive quivering vanilla cuddleparty, despite the requisite 500 layers of scratchy taffeta. Please remove your jewelry.

Are you ready? Whatever will you wear? Who will feed your dog? Hurry on now, you only have ... oh dear ... three days left until May 21, the oft-repeated, now infamous date of the Rapture, as predicted by Oakland's own nutball octogenarian and world-famous sideshow pastor Harold Camping, after a lifetime of careful biblical calculations and number-crunching and blah blah etcetera you know the rest. (If you don't know, here's a handy FAQ).

So anyway, it's Armageddon, real soon now. Do you have plans? Have you made proper arrangements? For those of us left behind to suffer this terrible beautiful planet after the fanatical Christians depart, there will be plenty to do. There are looting groups forming on Facebook. There will be Rapture parties galore. Brunch parking will be awesome. After all, Armageddon is on a Saturday. Were you thinking Sunday? As if. Sunday is when God rests, barbecues some wild salmon, watches "Idol."

Perhaps we shouldn't be so cocky. Perhaps the good pastor isn't so very far off. The world, you have to admit, is in a bleak state indeed. Arab nations are in turmoil, prophetic biblical lands are war-torn and decimated, oil is threatening to dry up, fresh water too, the euro is on shaky ground and the American empire is on the verge of bankrupt implosion. I know! What else is new?

But that's not all. Ominous signs abound in nature, too. Permafrost is melting fast, honeybees are offing themselves en masse, dead dolphins are washing ashore, epic flooding is destroying the south, tsunamis are poisoning Asia, the Duggars just won't stop procreating. 2010 is now officially on record as the Weirdest Weather Ever, and 2011 is on track as the year we break seven billion horny hell-bound bipeds on a floating rock that never really wanted more than, say, a couple million. Fun for us!

It all adds up, no? But then again, something doesn't feel quite right. Something feels a little too ... positive. Glowing. Possible.

Flashback to the Dark Days of Bush, when the fundamentalists were all giddy from inhaling the toxic fumes of their own homophobic xenophobic bloviation and doom-tracking lists like the Rapture Index were happily sucking at the tit of guys like Ted Haggard; megachurches were all the rage in collective psychosis, and even Bush himself said God told him that launching a few wars and murdering thousands of Islamic innocents was "totally cool" with Him.

In other words, End times predictions were hotter than Ashton Kutcher's tweets, except Kutcher was a 20-something dork and Twitter hadn't been invented yet. What a time it was.

Still, nothing happened. The world felt far more desolate and off-kilter than it is now. America was diving headlong into its ugliest period in nearly a century, conspiracy theories were a dime a dozen, and Fox News' juggernaut of idiocy was just hitting its stride. Angry Jesus simply could not have picked a better time than, say, 2003 to be wildly disgusted and wipe us all out so He could start over with some feral bunnies and a fistful of opium poppies.

It's tough not to feel a twinge of disappointment, then. If you're anything like me, maybe the curious, ironic part of you likes to sigh, sip its Maker's Mark and say, "Gosh, wouldn't it be interesting, wouldn't it be fascinating if once, just once, someone were actually right about just one insane fringe theory of doom?"

Aliens among us, peak oil, 9/11 holograms, a single global currency, lizard overlords from the fifth dimension, Area 51, Osama bin Laden killed and secretly frozen in 2002 and kept in Dick Cheney's freezer and then thawed out 10 years later just so Generation Facebook can gawk at his withered mug and go, "Him? Really? That frail, filthy imp of human pathos is the reason I have to take my goddamn shoes off at the airport and suffer the Tea Party, Alex Jones and Islamophobia?"

Maybe we've been going at it all wrong. Maybe if there's one thing we've should have learned by now about the Rapture, about the end of everything, it's this: It's a slow bitch.

Climate change, the end of oil, the Pacific Garbage Patch, it all takes awhile to knock us completely flat, relatively speaking, despite how all our zombie movies and Armageddon porn fantasies have us vanishing in a bloody, cataclysmic, CGI-enhanced poof.

Here's a fun thought: Maybe Armageddon is already happening, piece by piece and storm by storm, but we clever humans are smart/dumb/lucky enough to adapt just enough to stay barely one step ahead, to stretch poor Mother Earth's resources a little further and to whistle past the graveyard one more time to make it home in time for some pizza and porn. Barely.

Maybe the Rapture isn't meant to happen in a big megawhoomp zap, like a giant piñata filled with little candy Jesuses exploding all over the Colorado Rockies. Maybe it's actually an epic saga, unfolding slowly over time, like the world's longest vaguely depressing but beautifully shot documentary film. Fantastic lighting! Expert camerawork! Stirring, hardscrabble tales of love and hope! Too bad everyone dies in the end.

Or maybe it's just this: Maybe for one moment this Rapture Saturday you pause, you step back from it all, you take a breath and a deep, hard look, and you realize it's not really so bad after all. You note how, through the muck and the bleak, infinite blessings abound. Because they do.

You do nothing at all, really, except realize the eternal truth, known since humankind was knee-high to a mystical hiccup: The Rapture is instantly available, at any moment, in any breath, if you just widen out a little and take it all in.

No harps. No angels. No nutball pastors. No deities. Hell, no religions whatsoever. You don't have to actually go anywhere at all. Except, you know, inward. Simple, really.

Source / SFGate

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Richard Heinberg: A Chance to Change the World

Peak Oil: A Chance to Change the World
By Richard Heinberg / May 14, 2011

For advice about life after graduation, students at Worcester Polytechnic wanted to hear from peak oil scholar Richard Heinberg instead of Exxon's CEO. Here's what he told them.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA invited Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, to give the commencement speech at its 2011 graduation ceremonies on May 14. When students heard this, many were surprised and upset. As Linnea Palmer Paton of Students for a Just and Stable Future put it in a letter to the college president, “[W]e, as conscientious members of the WPI community and proud members of the Class of 2011, will not give [the Exxon CEO] the honor of imparting ... his well-wishes ... for our futures ... when he is largely responsible for undermining them.”

The students then invited Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, to give an alternative commencement speech. After a few days of negotiations, the college administration agreed to give Heinberg the podium immediately after the main ceremony. Many students chose to walk out during Tillerson’s address. This is what Richard Heinberg had to say.

ExxonMobil is inviting you to take your place in a fossil-fueled twenty-first century. But I would argue that Exxon’s vision of the future is actually just a forward projection from our collective rear-view mirror. Despite its high-tech gadgetry, the oil industry is a relic of the days of the Beverly Hillbillies. The fossil-fueled sitcom of a world that we all find ourselves still trapped within may, on the surface, appear to be characterized by smiley-faced happy motoring, but at its core it is monstrous and grotesque. It is a zombie energy economy.

Of course, we all use petroleum and natural gas in countless ways and on a daily basis. These are amazing substances—they are energy-dense and chemically useful, and they yield enormous economic benefit. America started out with vast reserves of oil and gas, and these fuels helped make our nation the richest and most powerful in the world.
The End of the Cheap Oil Economy

But oil and gas are finite resources, so it was clear from the start that, as we extracted and burned them, we were in effect stealing from the future. In the early days, the quantities of fuel available seemed so enormous that depletion posed only a theoretical limit to consumption. We knew we would eventually empty the tanks of Earth’s hydrocarbon reserves, but that was a problem for our great-great-grandkids to worry about.

Yet U.S. oil production has been declining since 1970, even with huge discoveries in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Other countries are also seeing falling rates of discovery and extraction, and world crude oil production has been flat-lined for the past six years, even as oil prices have soared. According to the International Energy Agency, world crude oil production peaked in 2006 and will taper off from now on.

ExxonMobil says this is nothing we should worry about, as there are still vast untapped hydrocarbon reserves all over the world. That’s true. But we have already harvested the low-hanging fruit of our oil and gas endowment. The resources that remain are of lower quality and are located in places that are harder to access than was the case for oil and gas in decades past. Oil and gas companies are increasingly operating in ultra-deep water, or in arctic regions, and need to use sophisticated technologies like hydrofracturing, horizontal drilling, and water or nitrogen injection. We have entered the era of extreme hydrocarbons.

This means that production costs will continue to escalate year after year. Even if we get rid of oil market speculators, the price of oil will keep ratcheting up anyway. And we know from recent economic history that soaring energy prices cause the economy to wither: when consumers have to spend much more on gasoline, they have less to spend on everything else.

But if investment costs for oil and gas exploration and extraction are increasing rapidly, the environmental costs of these fuels are ballooning just as quickly. With the industry operating at the limits of its technical know-how, mistakes can and will happen. As we saw in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010, mistakes that occur under a mile or two of ocean water can have devastating consequences for an entire ecosystem, and for people who depend on ecosystem services. The citizens of the Gulf coast are showing a brave face to the world and understandably want to believe their seafood industry is safe and recovering, but biologists who work there tell us that oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is still working its way up the food chain.

Of course the biggest environmental cost from burning fossil fuels comes from our chemical alteration of the planetary atmosphere. Carbon dioxide from oil, gas, and coal combustion is changing Earth’s climate and causing our oceans to acidify. The likely consequences are truly horrifying: rising seas, extreme weather, falling agricultural output, and collapsing oceanic food chains. Never mind starving polar bears—we’re facing the prospect of starving people.

The Misinformation Machine

But wait: Is this even happening? A total of nearly half of all Americans tell pollsters they think either the planet isn’t warming at all, or, if it is, it’s not because of fossil fuels. After all, how can the world really be getting hotter when we’re seeing record snowfalls in many places? And even if it is warming, how do we know that’s not because of volcanoes, or natural climate variation, or cow farts, or because the Sun is getting hotter? Americans are understandably confused by questions like these, which they hear repeated again and again on radio and television.

Now of course, if you apply the critical thinking skills that you’ve learned here at WPI to an examination of the relevant data, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion as has been reached by the overwhelming majority of scientists who have studied all of these questions in great depth. Indeed, the scientific community is nearly unanimous in assessing that the Earth is warming, and that the only credible explanation for this is rising levels of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels. That kind of consensus is hard to achieve among scientists except in situations where a conclusion is overwhelmingly supported by evidence.

I’m not out to demonize ExxonMobil, but some things have to be said. That company plays a pivotal role in shaping our national conversation about climate change. A 2007 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists described how ExxonMobil adopted the tobacco industry’s disinformation tactics, and funded some of the same organizations that led campaigns against tobacco regulation in the 1980s—but this time to cloud public understanding of climate change science and delay action on the issue. According to the report, between 1998 and 2005 ExxonMobil funneled almost $16 million to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that misrepresented peer-reviewed scientific findings about global warming science. Exxon raised doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence, attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for “sound science” rather than business self-interest, and used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming. All of this is well-documented.

And it worked. Over the course of the past few years one of our nation’s two main political parties has made climate change denial a litmus test for its candidates, which means that climate legislation is effectively unachievable in this country for the foreseeable future. This is a big victory for ExxonMobil. Its paltry $16 million investment will likely translate to many times that amount in unregulated profits. But it is a disaster for democracy, for the Earth, and for your generation.

But here’s the thing. Everyone knows that America and the world will have to transition off of fossil fuels during this century anyway. Mr. Tillerson knows it as well as anyone. Some people evidently want to delay that transition as long as possible, but it cannot be put off indefinitely. My colleagues at Post Carbon Institute and I believe that delaying this transition is extremely dangerous for a number of reasons. Obviously, it prolongs the environmental impacts from fossil fuel production and combustion. But also, the process of building a renewable energy economy will take decades and require a tremendous amount of investment. If we don’t start soon enough, society will get caught in a trap of skyrocketing fuel prices and a collapsing economy, and won’t be in a position to fund needed work on alternative energy development.

In my darker moments I fear that we have already waited too long and that it is already too late. I hope I’m not right about that, and when I talk to young people like you I tend to feel that we can make this great transition, and that actions that have seemed politically impossible for the past forty years will become inevitable as circumstances change, and as a new hearts and minds comes to the table.

Even in the best case, though, the fact that we have waited so long to address our addiction to oil will still present us with tremendous challenges. But this is not a problem for ExxonMobil, at least not anytime soon. When the price of oil goes up, we feel the pain while Exxon reaps the profits. Even though Exxon’s actual oil production is falling due to the depletion of its oilfields, corporate revenues are flush: Exxon made almost $11 billion in profits in just the past three months. This translates to jobs in the oil industry. But how about the renewable energy industry, which everyone agrees is the key to our future?

For the past forty years, every U.S. president, without exception, has said we must reduce our country’s dependence on imported petroleum. Addiction to oil has become our nation’s single greatest point of geopolitical, economic, and environmental vulnerability. Yet here we are in 2011, still driving a fleet of 200 million gasoline-guzzling cars, trucks, and SUVs. The inability of our elected officials to tackle such an obvious problem is not simply the result of ineptitude. In addition to funding climate denial, fossil fuel companies like Exxon have contributed to politicians’ election campaigns in order to gain perks for their industry and to put off higher efficiency standards and environmental protections. Denying looming fuel supply problems, discouraging a transition to renewable energy, distorting climate science—these are all understandable tactics from the standpoint of corporate self-interest. Exxon is just doing what corporations do. But once again, it is society as a whole that suffers, and the consequences will fall especially on your generation.

Mr. Tillerson may have informed you about his company’s Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University. Exxon is now funding research into lowering the cost and increasing the efficiency of solar photovoltaic devices, increasing the efficiency of fuel cells, increasing the energy capacity of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars, designing higher-efficiency engines that produce lower emissions, making biodiesel fuel from bacteria, and improving carbon capture and storage. This is all admirable, if it is genuine and not just window-dressing.

Here’s a reality check in that regard: Exxon is investing about $10 million a year in the Global Climate and Energy Project—an amount that almost exactly equals Mr. Tillerson’s personal compensation in 2010. Ten million dollars also equals about three hours’ worth of Exxon profits from last year. You tell me if you think that is a sensibly proportionate response to the problems of climate change and oil depletion from the world’s largest energy company.

Even if Exxon’s investments in a sustainable energy future were of an appropriate scale, they come late in the game. We are still in a bind. That’s because there is no magic-bullet energy source out there that will enable world energy supplies to continue to grow as fossil fuels dwindle.

Renewable energy is viable and necessary, and we should be doing far more to develop it. But solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, and wave power each have limits and drawbacks that will keep them from supplying energy as cheaply and as abundantly as we would like. Our bind is that we have built our existing transport infrastructure and food systems around energy sources that are becoming more problematic with every passing year, and we have no Plan B in place. This means we will probably have less energy in the future, rather than more.

A Chance to Change the World

Again, I am addressing my words especially to you students. This will be the defining reality of your lives. Whatever field you go into—business, finance, engineering, transportation, agriculture, education, or entertainment—your experience will be shaped by the energy transition that is now under way. The better you understand this, the more effectively you will be able to contribute to society and make your way in the world.

We are at one of history’s great turning points. During your lifetime you will see world changes more significant in scope than human beings have ever witnessed before. You will have the opportunity to participate in the redesign of the basic systems that support our society—our energy system, food system, transport system, and financial system.

I say this with some confidence, because our existing energy, food, transport, and financial systems can’t be maintained under the circumstances that are developing—circumstances of fossil fuel depletion and an unstable climate. As a result, what you choose to do in life could have far greater implications than you may currently realize.

Over the course of your lifetime society will need to solve some basic problems:

  • How to grow food sustainably without fossil fuel inputs and without eroding topsoil or drawing down increasingly scarce supplies of fresh water;
  • How to support 7 billion people without depleting natural resources—including forests and fish, as well as finite stocks of minerals and metals; and
  • How to reorganize our financial system so that it can continue to perform its essential functions—reinvesting savings into socially beneficial projects—in the context of an economy that is stable or maybe even shrinking due to declining energy supplies, rather than continually growing.

Each of these core problems will take time, intelligence, and courage to solve. This is a challenge suitable for heroes and heroines, one that’s big enough to keep even the greatest generation in history fully occupied. If every crisis is an opportunity, then this is the biggest opportunity humanity has ever seen.

Making the best of the circumstances that life sends our way is perhaps the most important attitude and skill that we can hope to develop. The circumstance that life is currently serving up is one of fundamentally changed economic conditions. As this decade and this century wear on, we Americans will have fewer material goods and we will be less mobile. In a few years we will look back on late 20th century America as time and place of advertising-stoked consumption that was completely out of proportion to what Nature can sustainably provide. I suspect we will think of those times—with a combination of longing and regret—as a lost golden age of abundance, but also a time of foolishness and greed that put the entire world at risk.
It’s a time when it will be possible to truly change the world, because the world has to change anyway.

Making the best of our new circumstances will mean finding happiness in designing higher-quality products that can be re-used, repaired, and recycled almost endlessly; and finding fulfillment in human relationships and cultural activities rather than mindless shopping. Fortunately, we know from recent cross-cultural psychological studies that there is little correlation between levels of consumption and happiness. That tells us that life can in fact be better without fossil fuels.

So whether we view these as hard times or as times of great possibility is really a matter of perspective. I would emphasize the latter. This is a time of unprecedented opportunity for service to one’s community. It’s a time when it will be possible to truly change the world, because the world has to change anyway. It is a time when you can make a difference by helping to shape this needed and inevitable change.

As I travel, I meet young people in every part of this country who are taking up the challenge of building a post-petroleum future: a 25-year-old farmer in New Jersey who plows with horses and uses no chemicals; the operator of a biodiesel co-op in Northampton; a solar installer in Oakland, California. The energy transition will require new thinking in every field you can imagine, from fine arts to banking. Companies everywhere are hiring sustainability officers to help guide them through the challenges and opportunities. At the same time, many young people are joining energy and climate activist organizations like and Transition Initiatives.

So here is my message to you in a nutshell: Fossil fuels made it possible to build the world you have inhabited during your childhood and throughout your years in the education system. Now it’s up to you to imagine and build the world after fossil fuels. This is the challenge and opportunity of your lifetimes. I wish you good cheer and good luck as you make the most of it.

[Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, and The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.]

Source / Yes! Magazine

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Wait a Minute -- Who Creates Those Jobs?

Actually, "the Rich" Don't "Create Jobs," We Do
By Dave Johnson / May 14, 2011

You hear it again and again, variation after variation on a core message: if you tax rich people it kills jobs. You hear about "job-killing tax hikes," or that "taxing the rich hurts jobs," "taxes kill jobs," "taxes take money out of the economy, "if you tax the rich they won't be able to provide jobs." ... on and on it goes. So do we really depend on "the rich" to "create" jobs? Or do jobs get created when they fill a need?

Here is a recent typical example, Obama Touts Job-Killing Tax Plan, written by a "senior fellow at the Cato Institute and chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth,"

Some people, in their pursuit of profit, benefit their fellow humans by creating new or better goods and services, and then by employing others. We call such people entrepreneurs and productive workers.

Others are parasites who suck the blood and energy away from the productive. Such people are most often found in government.

Perhaps the most vivid description of what happens to a society where the parasites become so numerous and powerful that they destroy their productive hosts is Ayn Rand’s classic novel “Atlas Shrugged.” ...

Producers and Parasites

The idea that there are producers and parasites as expressed in the example above has become a core philosophy of conservatives. They claim that wealthy people "produce" and are rich because they "produce." The rest of us are "parasites" who suck blood and energy from the productive rich, by taxing them. In this belief system, We, the People are basically just "the help" who are otherwise in the way, and taxing the producers to pay for our "entitlements." We "take money" from the producers through taxes, which are "redistributed" to the parasites. They repeat the slogan, "Taxes are theft," and take the "money we earned" by "force" (i.e. government.)

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner echoes this core philosophy of "producers" and "parasites," saying yesterday,

I believe raising taxes on the very people that we expect to reinvest in our economy and to hire people is the wrong idea,” he said. “For those people to give that money to the government…means it wont get reinvested in our economy at a time when we’re trying to create jobs.”

"The very people" who "hire people" shouldn't have to pay taxes because that money is then taken out of the productive economy and just given to the parasites -- "the help" -- meaning you and me...

So is it true? Do "they" create jobs? Do we "depend on" the wealthy to "create jobs?"

Demand Creates Jobs

I used to own a business and have been in senior positions at other businesses, and I know many others who have started and operated businesses of all sizes. I can tell you from direct experience that I tried very hard to employ the right number of people. What I mean by this is that when there were lots of customers I would add people to meet the demand. And when demand slacked off I had to let people go.

If I had extra money I wouldn't just hire people to sit around and read the paper. And if I had more customers than I could handle that -- the revenue generated by meeting the additional demand from the extra customers -- is what would pay for employing more people to meet the demand. It is a pretty simple equation: you employ the right number of people to meet the demand your business has.

If you ask around you will find that every business tries to employ the right number of people to meet the demand. Any business owner or manager will tell you that they hire based on need, not on how much they have in the bank. (Read more here, in last year's Businesses Do Not Create Jobs.)

Taxes make absolutely no difference in the hiring equation.

In fact, paying taxes means you are already making money, which means you have already hired the right number of people. Taxes are based on subtracting your costs from your revenue, and if you have profits after you cover your costs, then you might be taxed. You don't even calculate your taxes until well after the hiring decision has been made. You don;t lay people off to "cover" your taxes. And even if you did lay people off to "cover' taxes it would lower your costs and you would have more profit, which means you would have more taxes... except that laying someone off when you had demand would cause you to have less revenue, ... and you see how ridiculous it is to associate taxes with hiring at all!

People coming in the door and buying things is what creates jobs.

The Rich Do Not Create Jobs

Lots of regular people having money to spend is what creates jobs and businesses. That is the basic idea of demand-side economics and it works. In a consumer-driven economy designed to serve people, regular people with money in their pockets is what keeps everything going. And the equal opportunity of democracy with its reinvestment in infrastructure and education and the other fruits of democracy is fundamental to keeping a demand-side economy functioning.

When all the money goes to a few at the top everything breaks down. Taxing the people at the top and reinvesting the money into the democratic society is fundamental to keeping things going.

Democracy Creates Jobs

This idea that a few wealthy people -- the "producers" -- hand everything down to the rest of us -- "the parasites" -- is fundamentally at odds with the concept of democracy. In a democracy we all have an equal voice and an equal stake in how our society and our economy does. We do not "depend" on the good graces of a favored few for our livelihoods. We all are supposed to have an equal opportunity, and equal rights. And there are things we are all entitled to -- "entitlements" -- that we get just because we were born here. But we all share in the responsibility to cover the costs of democracy -- with the rich having a greater responsibility than the rest of us because they receive the most benefit from it. This is why we have "progressive taxes" where the rates are supposed to go up as the income does.

Taxes Are The Lifeblood Of Democracy And The Prosperity That Democracy Produces

In a democracy the rich are supposed to pay more to cover things like building and maintaining the roads and schools because these are the things that enable their wealth. They actually do use the roads and schools more because the roads enable their businesses to prosper and the schools provide educated employees. But it isn't just that the rich use roads more, it is that everyone has a right to use roads and a right to transportation because we are a democracy and everyone has the same rights. And as a citizen in a democracy you have an obligation to pay your share for that.

A democracy is supposed have a progressive tax structure that is in proportion to the means to pay. We do this because those who get more from the system do so because the democratic system offers them that ability. Their wealth is because of our system and therefore they owe back to the system in proportion. (Plus, history has taught the lesson that great wealth opposes democracy, so democracy must oppose the accumulation of great, disproportional wealth. In other words, part of the contract of living in a democracy is your obligation to protect the democracy and high taxes at the top is one of those protections.)

The conservative "producer and parasite" anti-tax philosophy is fundamentally at odds with the concepts of democracy (which they proudly acknowledge - see more here, and here) and should be understood and criticized as such. Taxes do not "take money out of the economy" they enable the economy. The rich do not "create jobs," We, the People create jobs.

[Dave Johnson (Redwood City, CA) is a Fellow at Campaign for America's Future, writing about American manufacturing, trade and economic/industrial policy. He is also a Senior Fellow with Renew California. Dave has more than 20 years of technology industry experience including positions as CEO and VP of marketing. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. And he was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.]

Source / Truthout

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

War Is a Racket and It Always Has Been

A New American Dream This Mother's Day
By Susan Galleymore / May 8, 2011

Every Mother's Day we mothers are subjected to the same consumer brainwash: that we deserve a “day off”, and flowers, and brunch – or at least breakfast in bed.

But Mother's Day originated as a call for peace after the grisly, divisive carnage of Civil War. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe wanted to appoint “a general congress of women without limit of promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

On May 10, 1908 Anna Jarvis presided over the first official Mother's Day celebration at Andrew's Methodist Church... then was arrested trying to stop women selling flowers. She wanted to “keep the day one of sentiment not one of profit”.

In 2005, Israeli Nurit Peled-Elhanan, whose 13-year-old daughter was killed in a Jerusalem suicide bombing, said, “Mothers have always been rebellious. In the Bible, in Greek mythology, there is always a mother who defies authority. The Talmud described mothers as prophets, because they looked ahead and understood what would happen to the children....”

Mother's Day is for the rebellious who concur, “Not for me flowers force-fed for profit in greenhouses built on land that ought to grow non-GM crops to feed the world's hungry and homeless”; “Not for me a day off, rather a day on...shutting down the -isms that thwart life's everyday ecstasy: neoliberalism, globalism, racism, sexism, elitism, oligarchic parasitism”, “Not for me a day in fealty to consumerism but to remember Wordsworth: “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”....

Instead of sitting down at the brunch table Mother's Day could signal the first day of the rest of our lives pledging to sit down in our nation's streets, blow our whistles, bang our pots, sound our alarms, and tell our politicians: “Stop bowing to the almighty corporate dollar, bring home our troops, tax the corporations and the rich to educate our children and ensure the health and well-being of all members of our society... or we will force you from office!”

Pledge to tell it like it is: profiteering shatters our society, tears up our earth, and contaminates our communities; sloganeering destroys our native intelligence, dumbs down our instincts, dulls our wits; careerism fogs our ethics, corrupts our morals, betrays our humanity; waging war kills the souls of all humans – whether made in America or where America makes war.

Fellow Americans may call us tough nuts, or a nut-busters, or just plain old nuts but remind them that another tough nut, United States Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler told us, even before transnational corporatism's firm grip on our time, our wallets, and our children, that:

“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

Nurit Peled-Elhanan said, “Mothers, women in general, are not used to saying, “No! No, I am nobody's property. No! My children are nobody's property. No, my uterus is not a national asset.”

Lets try it. All together now: “No! No more wars promoted by patriotism but parlayed into profit.”

For, oh, we still have such a long way to go, baby!

[Nurit Peled-Elhanan tells her story in Susan Galleymore's book, Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, where she shares the stories of mothers in the war zones of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, West Bank, Israel, Afghanistan, and the US.]

Source / Common Dreams

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Engelhardt: Osama Dead and Alive

Osama bin Laden’s American Legacy: It’s Time to Stop Celebrating and Go Back to Kansas
By Tom Engelhardt / May 5, 2011

Back in the 1960s, Senator George Aiken of Vermont offered two American presidents a plan for dealing with the Vietnam War: declare victory and go home. Roundly ignored at the time, it’s a plan worth considering again today for a war in Afghanistan and Pakistan now in its tenth year.

As everybody not blind, deaf, and dumb knows by now, Osama bin Laden has been eliminated. Literally. By Navy Seals. Or as one of a crowd of revelers who appeared in front of the White House Sunday night put it on an impromptu sign riffing on The Wizard of Oz: “Ding, Dong, Bin Laden Is Dead.”

And wouldn’t it be easy if he had indeed been the Wicked Witch of the West and all we needed to do was click those ruby slippers three times, say “there’s no place like home,” and be back in Kansas. Or if this were V-J day and a sailor’s kiss said it all.

Unfortunately, in every way that matters for Americans, it’s an illusion that Osama bin Laden is dead. In every way that matters, he will fight on, barring a major Obama administration policy shift in Afghanistan, and it’s we who will ensure that he remains on the battlefield that George W. Bush’s administration once so grandiosely labeled the Global War on Terror.

Admittedly, the Arab world had largely left bin Laden in the dust even before he took that bullet to the head. There, the focus was on the Arab Spring, the massive, ongoing, largely nonviolent protests that have shaken the region and its autocrats to their roots. In that part of the world, his death is, as Tony Karon of Time Magazine has written, “little more than a historical footnote,” and his dreams are now essentially meaningless.

Consider it an insult to irony, but the world bin Laden really changed forever wasn’t in the Greater Middle East. It was here. Cheer his death, bury him at sea, don’t release any photos, and he’ll still carry on as a ghost as long as Washington continues to fight its deadly, disastrous wars in his old neighborhood.

The Tao of Terrorism

If analogies to The Wizard of Oz were in order, bin Laden might better be compared to that film’s wizard rather than the wicked witch. After all, he was, in a sense, a small man behind a vast screen on which his frail frame took on, in the U.S., the hulking proportions of a supervillain, if not a rival superpower. In actuality, al-Qaeda, his organization, was, at best, a ragtag crew that, even in its heyday, even before it was embattled and on the run, had the most limited of operational capabilities. Yes, it could mount spectacular and spectacularly murderous actions, but only one of them every year or two.

Bin Laden was never “Hitler,” nor were his henchmen the Nazis, nor did they add up to Stalin and his minions, though sometimes they were billed as such. The nearest thing al-Qaeda had to a state was the impoverished, ravaged, Taliban-controlled part of Afghanistan where some of its “camps” were once sheltered. Even the money available to Bin Laden, while significant, wasn’t much to brag about, not on a superpower scale anyway. The 9/11 attacks were estimated to cost $400,000 to $500,000, which in superpower terms was pure chump change.

Despite the apocalyptic look of the destruction bin Laden’s followers caused in New York and at the Pentagon, he and his crew of killers represented a relatively modest, distinctly non-world-ending challenge to the U.S. And had the Bush administration focused the same energies on hunting him down that it put into invading and occupying Afghanistan and then Iraq, can there be any question that almost 10 years wouldn’t have passed before he died or, as will now never happen, was brought to trial?

It was our misfortune and Osama bin Laden’s good luck that Washington’s dreams were not those of a global policeman intent on bringing a criminal operation to justice, but of an imperial power whose leaders wanted to lock the oil heartlands of the planet into a Pax Americana for decades to come. So if you’re writing bin Laden's obituary right now, describe him as a wizard who used the 9/11 attacks to magnify his meager powers many times over.

After all, while he only had the ability to launch major operations every couple of years, Washington -- with almost unlimited amounts of money, weapons, and troops at its command -- was capable of launching operations every day. In a sense, after 9/11, Bin Laden commanded Washington by taking possession of its deepest fears and desires, the way a bot takes over a computer, and turning them to his own ends.

It was he, thanks to 9/11, who insured that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan would be put into motion. It was he, thanks to 9/11, who also insured that the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be launched. It was he, thanks to 9/11, who brought America's Afghan war to Pakistan, and American aircraft, bombs, and missiles to Somalia and Yemen to fight that Global War on Terror. And for the last near-decade, he did all this the way a Tai Chi master fights: using not his own minimal strength, but our massive destructive power to create the sort of mayhem in which he undoubtedly imagined that an organization like his could thrive.

Don’t be surprised, then, that in these last months or even years bin Laden seems to have been sequestered in a walled compound in a resort area just north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, doing next to nothing. Think of him as practicing the Tao of Terrorism. In fact, the less he did, the fewer operations he was capable of launching, the more the American military did for him in creating what collapsing Chinese dynasties used to call “chaos under heaven.”

Dead and Alive

As is now obvious, bin Laden’s greatest wizardry was performed on us, not on the Arab world, where the movements he spawned from Yemen to North Africa have proven remarkably peripheral and unimportant. He helped open us up to all the nightmares we could visit upon ourselves (and others) -- from torture and the creation of an offshore archipelago of injustice to the locking down of our own American world, where we were to cower in terror, while lashing out militarily.

In many ways, he broke us not on 9/11 but in the months and years after. As a result, if we don’t have the sense to follow Senator Aiken’s advice, the wars we continue to fight with disastrous results will prove to be his monument, and our imperial graveyard (as Afghanistan has been for more than one empire in the past).

At a moment when the media and celebratory American crowds are suddenly bullish on U.S. military operations, we still have almost 100,000 American troops, 50,000 allied troops, startling numbers of armed mercenaries, and at least 400 military bases in Afghanistan almost 10 years on. All of this as part of an endless war against one man and his organization which, according to the CIA director, is supposed to have only 50 to 100 operatives in that country.

Now, he’s officially under the waves. In the Middle East, his idea of an all-encompassing future “caliphate” was the most ephemeral of fantasies. In a sense, though, his dominion was always here. He was our excuse and our demon. He possessed us.

When the celebrations and partying over his death fade, as they will no less quickly than did those for Britain’s royal wedding, we’ll once again be left with the tattered American world bin Laden willed us, and it will be easy to see just how paltry a thing this “victory,” his killing, is almost 10 years later.

For all the print devoted to the operation that took him out, all the talking heads chattering away, all the hosannas being lavished on American special ops forces, the president, his planners, and various intelligence outfits, this is hardly a glorious American moment. If anything, we should probably be in mourning for what we buried long before we had bin Laden’s body, for what we allowed him (and our own imperial greed) to goad us into doing to ourselves, and what, in the course of that, we did, in the name of fighting him, to others.

Those chants of “USA! USA!” on the announcement of his death were but faint echoes of the ones at Ground Zero on September 14, 2001, when President George W. Bush picked up a bullhorn and promised “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” That would be the beginning of a brief few years of soaring American hubris and fantasies of domination wilder than those of any caliphate-obsessed Islamic fundamentalist terrorist, and soon enough they would leave us high and dry in our present world of dismal unemployment figures, rotting infrastructure, rising gas prices, troubled treasury, and a people on the edge.

Unless we set aside the special ops assaults and the drone wars and take a chance, unless we’re willing to follow the example of all those nonviolent demonstrators across the Greater Middle East and begin a genuine and speedy withdrawal from the Af/Pak theater of operations, Osama bin Laden will never die.

On September 17, 2001, President Bush was asked whether he wanted bin Laden dead. He replied: “There’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said ‘wanted dead or alive.’” Dead or alive. Now, it turns out that there was a third option. Dead and alive.

The chance exists to put a stake through the heart of Osama bin Laden’s American legacy. After all, the man who officially started it all is theoretically gone. We could declare victory, Toto, and head for home. But why do I think that, on this score, the malign wizard is likely to win?

[Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books). To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses covert war and the killing of Osama bin Laden, click here, or download it to your iPod here.]

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

Source / TomDispatch

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bernanke's Stock Market Blastoff (Bubblemania)

Hanky-Panky at the Fed: Grand Theft Benny
By Mike Whitney / May 1, 2011

It's the biggest flim-flam in the nation's history. But, thanks to the Congressional Research Service, the scam has been exposed and the public can now get a good look at the type of swindle that passes as monetary policy.

Here's the scoop: When Fed chairman Ben Bernanke initiated the first round of Quantitative Easing (QE), the stated goal was to revive the flagging housing market by purchasing $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) from the country's biggest banks. The policy was a ripoff from the get-go. No one wanted these mortgage stinkbombs that were stitched together from subprime loans to unqualified applicants. But because the banks were already busted--and because the $700 billion TARP was barely enough to keep the ventilator running until the next bailout came through-- the Fed helped to conceal its real objectives behind an elaborate PR smokescreen. In truth, the Fed must have colluded with the banks to move the toxic assets off their books (and onto the Fed's balance sheet) with the proviso that the banks withhold foreclosed homes from the market.

By keeping the extra homes off-market, supply went down, demand went up (slightly), and housing showed signs of a rebound. The withholding of supply was synchronized with the Firsttime Homebuyers credit, which provided an $8,000 subsidy to new home buyers. This pumped up housing sales and further concealed what was really taking place, which was a gigantic transfer of public wealth to the banks in exchange for putrid assets that no one wanted. Naturally, the process kept the market from correcting and added vast numbers of foreclosed homes to the shadow inventory.

During this same period, the Fed worked out an agreement with Congress to pay the banks interest on the reserves it created at the banks. (Note: The MBS were exchanged for reserves) At the time, many experts questioned the wisdom of the Fed's plan saying that the reserves would not lead to another credit expansion. And they were right, too. In fact, it didn't stop the slide in housing either which resumed with gusto as soon as QE ended and the banks started dumping more foreclosed homes onto the market.

So, why would the Fed add more than a trillion dollars in reserves to the banking system if it really served no earthly purpose? Was it just so the banks would be able to earn interest on those reserves? Surely, that wouldn't be nearly enough to remove the ocean of red ink on their balance sheets. So, what was Bernanke really up to?

On Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders office released a CRS report titled "Banks Play Shell Game with Taxpayer Dollars" that sheds a bit of light on the shady ways the Fed conducts its business. Sanders "found numerous instances during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 when banks took near zero-interest funds from the Federal Reserve and then loaned money back to the federal government on sweetheart terms for the banks."

So, now we have irrefutable proof that the Fed was simply handing out money to the banks. More importantly, the report shows that this was not just a few isolated incidents, but a pattern of abuse that increased as the needs of the banks became more pressing. In other words, giving away money became policy. Is it any wonder why the Fed has fought so ferociously to prevent an audit of its books?

From Sander's report: "The banks pocketed interest on government securities that paid rates up to 12 times greater than the Fed’s rock bottom interest charges, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis conducted for Sanders."

Are you kidding me; 12 times more than what the Fed was getting in return?

That's larceny, my friend. Grand larceny.

More from the Sanders report: “This report confirms that ultra-low interest loans provided by the Federal Reserve during the financial crisis turned out to be direct corporate welfare to big banks,” Sanders said. “Instead of using the Fed loans to reinvest in the economy, some of the largest financial institutions in this country appear to have lent this money back to the federal government at a higher rate of interest by purchasing U.S. government securities.”

And, what they didn't lend back to Uncle Sam at a hefty rate of interest, they plunked into equities to ignite Bernanke's Stock Market Blastoff, the final phase of bubblemania.

So, let's use an analogy to explain what the Fed was doing: Imagine that you provide your son, Kirby, with a weekly allowance of $50. And Kirby--showing an uncanny aptitude for career banking--says, "Dad, I'd like to loan this money back to you at 10 per cent per annum." Would that be a good deal for you, Dad, or would dearest Kirby be taking you to the cleaners?

That's what Bernanke was doing "at rates up to 12 times greater than the Fed’s rock bottom interest charges." So the question is, if Bernanke was already involved in this type of hanky-panky, what would keep him from raising the stakes a bit and really putting his friends back in the clover? Honor? Integrity?

Not likely.

What I'd like to know is whether the Fed has been creating reserves at the banks, reserves that the banks have then converted into government bonds (USTs) and sold back to the Fed during QE2? In other words, is this another circular trade (like we see in the Sanders report) whose only purpose is to funnel more money to the banks?

And--if that's NOT the case-- then where did the banks come up with $600 billion in US Treasuries that they just sold to the Fed? After all, in testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC), Bernanke admitted that 12 of the 13 biggest banks in the country were underwater after Lehman Brothers defaulted. If that's true, then where did they get the $600 billion in Treasuries?

It's not a question of whether the Fed has been abusing its power. It's just a matter of "how much".

[Mike Whitney lives in Washington state.]

Source / Counterpunch

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