Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Free-Market Medicine: A Personal Account By Michael Parenti / Information Clearing House

Free-Market Medicine: A Personal Account

By Michael Parenti
January 27, 2012 "
Information Clearing House" --- When I recently went to Alta Bates hospital for surgery, I discovered that legal procedures take precedence over medical ones. I had to sign intimidating statements about financial counseling, indemnity, patient responsibilities, consent to treatment, use of electronic technologies, and the like.

One of these documents committed me to the following: “The hospital pathologist is hereby authorized to use his/her discretion in disposing of any member, organ, or other tissue removed from my person during the procedure.” Any member? Any organ?

The next day I returned for the actual operation. While playing Frank Sinatra recordings, the surgeon went to work cutting open several layers of my abdomen in order to secure my intestines with a permanent mesh implant. Afterward I spent two hours in the recovery room. “I feel like I’ve been in a knife fight,” I told one nurse. “It’s called surgery,” she explained.

Then, while still pumped up with anesthetics and medications, I was rolled out into the street. The street? Yes, some few hours after surgery they send you home. In countries that have socialized medicine (there I said it), a van might be waiting with trained personnel to help you to your abode.

Not so in free-market America. Your presurgery agreement specifies in boldface that you must have “a responsible adult acquaintance” (as opposed to an irresponsible teenage stranger) take you home in a private vehicle. I kept thinking, what happens to those unfortunates who have no one to bundle them away? Do they languish endlessly in the hospital driveway until the nasty weather finishes them off?

You are not allowed to call a taxi. Were a taxi driver to cause you any harm, you could hold the hospital legally responsible. Again it’s a matter of liability and lawyers, not health and doctors.

One of the two friends who helped me up the steps to my house then went off to Walgreen’s to buy the powerful antibiotics I had to take every four hours for two days. I dislike how antibiotics destroy the “good bacteria” that our bodies produce, and how they help create dangerous strains of super-resistant bacteria. I kept thinking of a recent finding: excessive reliance on medical drugs kills more Americans than all illegal narcotics combined.

So why did I have to take antibiotics? Because, as everyone kept telling me, hospitals are seriously unsafe places overrun with Staph infections and other super bugs. It’s a matter of self-protection.

Two days after surgery I noticed a dark red discoloration on my lower abdomen indicating internal bleeding. I was supposed to get a follow-up call from a nurse who would check on how I was doing. But the call might never come because the staff was planning a walkout. “We have no contract,” one of them had told me when I was in the recovery room. So now the nurses are on strike---and I’m left on my own to divine what my internal bleeding is all about. What fun.

Fortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. A nurse did call me despite the walkout. Yes, she said, it was internal bleeding, but it was to be expected. My surgeon called later in the day to confirm this opinion. Death was not yet knocking.

A few days later, there were massive nurses strikes on both coasts. Among other things, the nurses were complaining about “being disrespected by a corporate hospital culture that demands sacrifices from patients and those who provide their care, but pays executives millions of dollars.” (New York Times, 16 December 2011). One cold-blooded management negotiator was quoted as saying, “We have the money. We just don’t have the will to give it to you” (ibid.).

As for the doctors, both my surgeon and my general practitioner (GP) are among the victims, not the perpetrators, of today’s corporate medical system. My GP explained that it is an endless fight to get insurance companies to pay for services they supposedly cover. Feeling less like a doctor and more like a bill collector, my GP found he could no longer engage in endless telephone struggles with insurance companies.

There are 1,500 medical insurance companies in America, all madly dedicated to maximizing profits by increasing premiums and withholding payments. The medical industry in toto is the nation’s largest and most profitable business, with an annual health bill of about $1 trillion.

Along with the giant insurance and giant pharmaceutical companies, the greatest profiteers are the Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), notorious for charging steep monthly payments while underpaying their staffs and requiring their doctors to spend less time with each patient, sometimes even withholding necessary treatment.

I am without private insurance. And my Medicare goes just so far. Like many other doctors, my GP no longer accepts Medicare. For a number of years now, Medicare payments to physicians have remained relatively unchanged while costs of running a practice (staff, office space, insurance) have steadily increased. So now my GP’s patients have to pay in full upon every visit—which is not always easy to do.

Our health system mirrors our class system. At the base of the pyramid are the very poor. Many of them suffer through long hours in emergency rooms only to be turned away with a useless or harmful prescription. No wonder “the United States has the worst record among industrialized nations in treating preventable deaths” (Healthcare-NOW! 1 December 2011).

Too often the very poor get no care at all. They simply die of whatever illness assails them because they cannot afford treatment. An acquaintance of mine told me how her mother died of AIDS because she could not afford the medications that might have kept her alive.

In Houston I once got talking with a limousine driver, a young African-American man, who remarked that both his parents had died of cancer without ever receiving any treatment. “They just died,” he said with a pain in his voice that I can still hear.

Living just above the poor in the class pyramid are the embattled middle class. They watch medical coverage disappear while paying out costly amounts to the profit-driven insurance companies. I was able to get surgery at Alta Bates only because I am old enough to have Medicare and have enough disposable income to meet the co-payment.

For my out-patient operation, the hospital charged Medicare $19,466. Of this, Medicare paid $2,527. And I was billed $644. The hospital then writes off the unpaid balance thus saving considerable sums in taxes (amounting to an indirect subsidy from the rest of us taxpayers). Had I no Medicare coverage, I would have had to pay the entire $19,466.

I was informed by the hospital that the $19,466 charge covers only hospital costs for equipment, technicians, supplies, and room. So besides the $644, I will have to pay for any pathologists, surgical assistants, and anesthesiologists who performed additional services. I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.

How much does my surgeon earn? Not much at all. He gets about $400 to $500 for everything, including my pre-op and post-op visits and the surgery itself, an exacting undertaking that requires skills of the highest sort. He also has to maintain insurance, an office, an assistant, and an increasing load of paperwork.

My surgeon pointed out to me, “If you ask people how much I make on an operation like yours, they will say $4000 to $5000, and be wrong by a factor of ten.” He noted that in a recent speech President Obama criticized a surgeon for charging $30,000 to replace a knee cap. “The surgeon gets a minute fraction of that amount,” my doctor pointed out.

To make matters worse, there is talk about cutting Medicare payments to physicians by 27 percent. If this happens, it is going to be increasingly difficult to find a surgeon who will take Medicare. Still worse, the private insurance companies will join in squeezing the physicians for still more profits.

I was able to meet my payment ($644) not only because my operation was heavily subsidized by Medicare but because it was a one-day “ambulatory surgery.” I don’t know how I would fare if I had to undergo prolonged and extremely costly treatment.

So much for life in the middle class. At the very top of the class pyramid are the 1%, those who don’t have to worry about any of this, the superrich who have money enough for all kinds of state-of-the-art treatments at the very finest therapeutic centers around the world, complete with luxury suites with gourmet menus.

Among the medically privileged are members of Congress and the U.S. president. They pay nothing. They are treated at top-grade facilities. They enjoy, how shall we put it, socialized medicine. No conservative lawmakers have held fast to their free-market principles by refusing to accept this publicly funded, medical treatment.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, cheerfully announced that medical care is not a human right; it should be “market determined just like food and shelter.” Nobody has a higher opinion of John Mackey than I, and I think he is a greed-driven, union-busting bloodsucker. Nevertheless I will give him credit for candidly admitting his dedication to a dehumanized profit pathology.

The U.S. medical system costs many times more than what is spent in socialized systems, but it delivers much less in the way of quality care and cure. That’s the way it is intended to be. The goal of any free-market service---be it utilities, housing, transportation, education, or health care---is not to maximize performance but to maximize profits often at the expense of performance.

If profits are high, then the system is working just fine---for the 1%. But for us 99%, the profit lust is itself the heart of the problem.

Michael Parenti received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities, in the United States and abroad. He is the author of twenty-three books:

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Shame and Pride of Joining Food Stamp Nation By Christopher D. Cook / Salon / ICH

Viva Economic Justice!!!! By Christopher D. Cook / Salon / ICH
The Shame and Pride of Joining Food Stamp Nation
"To brand Barack Obama the food stamp president food stamp rolls rose more sharply under Bush II. Roughly one in six Americans (one in five children) does not have reliable access to food. Even as unemployment eases modestly in some places, the vast underbelly of America is, economically and nutritionally, underfed."

January 27, 2012 "Salon" -- “Mister Cook! Chris Cook? Mr. Cook! Window three!”

I walk through the pasty government-issue fluorescent light and bureaucratic cinderblock waiting room, ushered into the inner sanctum of welfare benefits review. I feel oddly privileged, striding past rows of glum, tired, bored and frustrated faces—how have I been picked out so quickly, after just 15 minutes of sitting?

Getting inside doesn’t mean you’ll get approved, but, like waiting in a doctor’s lobby, sheer movement into a different room gives one hope. Progress.

My benefits counselor, a tall, stocky, healthfully heavyset Indian man speaks like a machine gun. ”Fifty-five,” he says brusquely as he waves his arm at a numbered booth in a long row of numbered booths. I’m still non-caffeinated so it takes me a moment to realize what “55″ means, then I take my seat across from him. It looks (and feels) like I’m in prison.

The caseworker, who I’ll call Chakim, is vigorous and businesslike. ”ID? Social Security card?”

I quickly hand him everything—my driver’s license, threadbare social security card with my awkward childhood signature, and my passport complete with its January 2011 stamp from India (I hope he notices).

He asks me, rat-a-tat-tat: “Unemployed? How much per month? Self-employed? Pay by cash or personal check?”

“I am self-employed,” I tell him, “payment is very inconsistent. Maybe $750 or $800 a month.”

“You have pay stubs? Pay in cash or personal check?”

I show him a few scattered check receipts from a folder. Four hundred fifty dollars here, $100 there, another for $200, another for $500. This is the writer’s life today.

“And how much is your rent? Other bills?”

I tally them up: $770 for rent, $40 for cell phone, $25 for utilities. That’s over $800 right there.

Chakim looks at me quizzically. ”So how are you surviving? Your rent is higher than your income?”

Savings, I tell him. It’s true: for the past few years, as a semi-accomplished, mid-career journalist and writer, I’ve been scuffling in the always-difficult, but now beastly-hard choppy waters of freelancing—supplementing my obscenely low (often under $15,000) income with some money my grandmother left me years ago. Combined, in the city of San Francisco, I live on something around $20,000. Every year, even as I work my butt off scrambling for assignments and clients, that little nest egg shrivels frightfully smaller. Now it’s almost gone, and though I’ve had some good little runs here and there with work, I’m hurtling precipitously toward poverty.

I’m hardly alone in my marginally privileged plight: as Huffington Post reported in June 2010, food critic Ed Murrieta went from restaurant-hopping with an expense account to living off a $200-a-month food stamp allotment. According to the USDA, 46.3 million Americans depend on food stamps to survive—a historic high, due to recession and population growth.

The soaring food stamp rolls, though quite predictable in the midst of a deep recession, have inspired wealthy Republican candidates for president (is there any other kind?) to brand Barack Obama “the food stamp president”—even though, according to USA Today, the rolls rose more sharply under President George W. Bush.

Roughly one in six Americans (one in five children) does not have reliable access to food. According to USA Today, citing census data, nearly half the country is poor or low-income. Even as unemployment eases modestly in some places, the vast underbelly of America is, economically and nutritionally, underfed.

I call myself frayed white collar—part of the privileged poor. I have a college degree, a career, and an array of middle-class, working-class, and more economically privileged friends; together we are a fairly good representation of the 97 percent, or maybe the 95 percent. And most of us are hard-pressed—even my teacher friends, making about $60,000 a year are perpetually flat-lined economically, eking across each month’s finish line thanks to credit cards.

Back in the benefits office, Chakim clicks away at his mouse with big thick fingers, rifles through his accordion folder, thrusting papers in front of me: “Sign.” I look up at him questioningly. ”Sign,” he says again. ”I’m trying to help you. Just sign.” So I do.

“Getting unemployment now? Been on food stamps before?”

“No, no unemployment. This is my first time on food stamps,” I tell him. ”Except for when I was a kid.”

Behind Chakim, against the opposite wall, a prank coffee mug, sliced in half, reads: “you asked for half a cup of coffee.” Here in America’s embattled public benefits land, that sure feels like a metaphor to me. Still, just to warm things up, I tell Chakim I like his coffee mug.

Within minutes, Chakim pulls out a Department of Human Services form titled “Food stamps intake follow-up,” jotting down my name and case number, and, benevolently, checks off the box where it says I will be certified for food stamps for 12 months. I’ll be “required to complete Form QR 7, Quarterly Eligibility Report, once every three (3) months.”

I feel a rush of saliva in my mouth—as if I’m about to taste food. I’m not remotely going hungry, my pantry and fridge are at least modestly attended by basic solid good foods (bags of greens and turnips and broccoli from farmers’ market, organic chicken in the freezer).

But as Chakim readies my approval documents, I taste a happy relief, imagining myself with my shiny new electronic benefits card, stocking up each month without moving toward destitute quite so quickly.

As I mentioned to Chakim, perhaps to curry sympathy, I grew up on food stamps. In the 1980s, while Ronald Reagan was raising the frightful specter of “welfare queens driving Cadillacs,” my single mother and I relied on food stamps for years—even when she worked at a health food store in Boston. We muddled through with her poverty wages, food stamp booklets, and, sometimes, slightly bruised but totally edible produce the store couldn’t sell.

I don’t recall ever feeling ashamed about being poor. To me, those booklets of food coupons were like Monopoly play money, and they kept us going. But now I’m 44, single, nobody to feed other than myself, and as Chakim signs the final papers, my sense of victory quickly feels like defeat. How have I “sunk” to this unkind station where, if I don’t get help or significantly boost my income, I could soon be ass out on the unforgiving streets?

As I leave the cinderblock edifice, passing people huddled around the entrance smoking cigarette butts, a wave of shame and sadness comes over me.

How have I fallen back to where I was when I was a food stamp, Head Start kid (getting, yes, free lunches)? America is supposed to be the engine of progress, and each of us is assigned the “promise” and, effectively, the duty, of keeping up that steady march. Even though I never bought the American narrative of progress and opportunity, I somehow feel like a bumbling screw up for not holding up my end of the bargain.

With my “Golden State Advantage” benefits card in hand, I move quickly from shame to guilt. Why? After all, I pay taxes, even if not very much on my poverty-level income (effectively about the same rate Mitt Romney pays on his thus-far untold millions a year in investment income). Oh yes, of course, this is bootstraps America, land of free capitalistic opportunity.

Public assistance has always carried the puritanical stink of stigma and guilt. As Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward explained in their classic book ”Regulating the Poor,” guilt and shame have long been intentional features of public aid—along with various forms of coerced labor and invasive monitoring—dating back to England’s poor laws of the 16th century, through to today’s much demonized welfare capitalism in America, where Republicans goad and bait our nation’s first black chief executive as “the food stamp president.”

Along with personal guilt, there is my broader political concern—that by adding to the food stamp rolls, I’m diminishing Obama’s chances of reelection (not that I’m a fan, but the Republicans have embraced full-fledged barbarism, threatening to destroy what little is left of the safety net).

But as a low-income progressive writer (talk about redundancies!) I’m committed to a couple things: getting myself fed, and getting out the word that being on food stamps—or expanding them as President—is about as far from a crime as one can get. Despite my personal response to being on the dole, the fact is, these benefits keep people alive. They keep people eating, and they keep others working, by essentially subsidizing the market for food retail.

Perhaps most important: food stamps are not the problem, nor are they the solution. They are a basic Band-Aid that barely keeps people afloat, while America’s corporations and the exceedingly rich make off like bandits, vacuuming their profits away from the public treasury. One might say that’s “another story,” but in fact rich people like Mitt Romney (and Newt Gingrich for that matter) evading taxes while blaming the poor for living off virtually nothing—that’s the real story we should be talking about.

As I walk through my gray shame and guilt in the cold overcast morning, I treat myself to a panic cigarette on my way to Whole Foods, where my purchases amount to coffee and a carrot and apple ($1.88, more than half the daily individual food stamp allotment) to augment my homemade tofu veggie stir-fry lunch. My electronic benefits transfer card won’t be activated until tomorrow. Then I’ll feel rich indeed.

Copyright © 2012 Salon Media Group, Inc

Occupy Movement Exposes Uncomfortable Facts By Ross T. Runfola / Buffalo News / ICH

Occupy Movement Exposes Uncomfortable Facts
By Ross T. Runfola

January 25, 2012 "
Buffalo News" - -The recent Pew Research report on tensions between the rich and poor gives a road map to the ofttimes unfocused Occupy movement. Since 2009, the study found, there is “a growing awareness of class conflict” among Americans.

Whatever its findings, that the mainstream Pew Research Center would frame the report in the usually verboten language of “class conflict” is itself remarkable. Whenever verbiage such as “class” or “class struggle,” let alone “class conflict” is used by academics or politicians to describe the incongruity between democracy and capitalism, it is rejected as Marxist ideological rant.

Even the avoidance of the use of “working class” for the more centrist “middle class” by President Obama led to the farcical cry of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum that Obama was encouraging class warfare.

This is hardly surprising, for when Obama attempted to raise taxes on the wealthy for the benefit of the larger populace, he was charged with encouraging class warfare rather than attempting a more equitable distribution of wealth. Although the concept of a fair distribution of assets is democratic, not Marxist, in thrust, and the 1 percent have been waging a rigged undeclared war against the 99 percent for decades, now that the 99 percent have begun pushing back, there is an inevitable cry of foul from the reactionary rich.

Award-winning author and scholar Michael Parenti, especially in his classic “Democracy for the Few,” argues “whatever modicum of democracy the people attain in any society is usually the outcome of a general struggle for a more equitable politico-economic order.” With the Occupy movement, that struggle has become visible.

Lest I be charged with advocating some form of Marxist rubric, I believe that while struggle, such as the civil rights movement, is at the heart of the most dramatic social change in the United States, only someone with historical and sociological amnesia would think that revolution will ever hold sway in the United States. The widespread belief of working-class people that they can become part of the upper class and the coming of the computer age renders stillborn any Marxist notion of a violent overthrow.

The savage corporate plunder that led to our current recession, however, seems to have exploded for all time the belief in the existence of a harmonious, prosperous society. Who would argue against the theory that the protest of the so-called 99 percent against the 1 percent is a rebellion of the poor and middle class against the rich based on a recognition that society is stratified?

And that is the essence of class consciousness. Marx thought such class consciousness would inevitably lead to revolution. In 2012 America, it has led instead to a consciousness among the Occupy protesters against a one-sided system of financial exploitation, which in its own way is quite revolutionary.

Ross T. Runfola is an attorney, writer and poet who is a professor of sociology at Medaille College.

Occupy Davos: Attendees Confront a New Wave of Anger Plus: George Soros on the Coming US Class War / Common Dreams

Occupy Davos: Attendees Confront a New Wave of Anger

Plus: George Soros on the Coming US Class War

- Common Dreams staff
This years’ World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, marks the start of the perennial capitalist meet-and-greet summit season.
Members of the Occupy WEF movement gather at their camp site in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos January 22, 2012. The Occupy WEF members will stay in a camp of several igloos and tents to protest during the World Economic Forum (WEF), which takes place from 

January 25 to 29. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann The economic equivalent of the Oscars, the WEF is a time for the 0.1% to celebrate the achievements and successes of free-markets, and to discuss how to keep the crumbling ship from running ashore; it’s also a time to get in a few good runs on the slopes, deep tissue massages and a soothing hot tub session on the 99%’s dime.
Nestled in the picturesque Swiss Alps where the melting glaciers are deceptively intact and the hotels serviced by an army of invisible temporary workers, approximately 2000 global elites discuss everything from redistributing their obscene profits (a.k.a philanthropy) and environmental sustainability, to forecasting new areas of expansion and the future of capitalism.
On this latter note, delegates will be treated to a special brainstorming session on corporate capitalism’s forecast led by the wisdom of Bank of America CEO, Bryan Moynihan. Then to jazz things up, there will be several roundtable discussions with social media and internet hotshots, Facebook and Google, on how the revolutionary elements of web organizing can reinforce market growth.
Gag. Why hasn’t a stink bomb already gone off in this place? (Adbusters)
* * *

Davos Forum Founder Says Capitalism is Out of Balance, Warns Conflicts Await

The Associated Press reports:
DAVOS, Switzerland — The founder of the World Economic Forum warns that capitalism is out of balance and welcomes protesters’ ideas of how to fix it.
In an interview, Klaus Schwab insists he’s still “a deep believer in free markets, but free markets have to serve society.” He’s getting ready to greet 2,600 world leaders, CEOs and other dignitaries for talks this week to tackle global economic challenges.
He said members of the Occupy protest movement camped in igloos in Davos have been invited to a session on the sidelines of the forum on reforming capitalism.
Protest organizer David Roth told the AP his group hadn’t decided yet whether to accept.
* * *

Davos Attendees Confront a New Wave of Anger

From the New York Times today:
Today, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is no longer just a rallying cry to incite anticapitalist activists. It has become a mainstream issue, debated openly in arenas where the primacy of laissez-faire capitalism used to be taken for granted and where talk of inequality used to be derided as class warfare.
In the United States, the issue surfaced when protesters proclaimed they were the ‘‘99 percent’’ of the population who were paying for the sins of the wealthy “1 percent,” taking their grievances directly to the epicenter of capitalism. The Occupy Wall Street protest, which began in New York, later spread to other cities around the United States and across the world.
In Spain, thousands of “indignados” converged on Madrid and other cities to vent their frustration over mass unemployment and government austerity measures. In the Arab world, a wave of unrest that toppled governments began with a protest over a lack of economic opportunities in Tunisia.
* * *

Global Leaders to Ponder Over Lows of Capitalism

India's Economic Times reports:
DAVOS, Switzerland -- Snowclaws and snowboots have been packed, diaries confirmed, reconfirmed and changed a hundred times, and invitation lists compared with a "see you somewhere then" as over 19 heads of state, more than 15 central bankers, assorted European royalty, and over 2600 of the great and mighty of global business descend on a remote ski resort high in the Alps of for the annual WEF schmoozefest.
This year, there's more than a hint of irony in the event that created the concept of the quintessential "Davos Man", that global super-achiever into disrepute after 2008: some of the richest people in the world, and companies who have paid millions to sponsor the event, will pontificate on the failings of capitalism and inequality before slipping off for vintage champagne dinners and parties. [...]
It's unlikely that any of them, or the top businessmen busy closing private deals in the bilateral meeting rooms or hotels, will drop in at the Occupy camp near the station outside the Davos security cordon, where protestors are camping out in -- yes, igloos and heated teepees - to protest against everything Davos stands for.
"Capitalism, in its current form, no longer fits the world around us. We have failed to learn the lessons from the financial crisis of 2009. A global transformation is urgently needed and it must start with reinstating a global sense of social responsibility," said Klaus Schwab, of WEF. Its recent global risks report highlights rising inequality as the biggest threat facing the world in future. Will anyone be listening to him?
* * *

George Soros on the Coming US Class War

George Soros, in an interview with Newsweek magazine titled “George Soros on the Coming US Class War”:
“I am not here to cheer you up. The situation is about as serious and difficult as I’ve experienced in my career,” Soros tells Newsweek. “We are facing an extremely difficult time, comparable in many ways to the 1930s, the Great Depression. We are facing now a general retrenchment in the developed world, which threatens to put us in a decade of more stagnation, or worse. The best-case scenario is a deflationary environment. The worst-case scenario is a collapse of the financial system.” [...]
Soros draws on his past to argue that the global economic crisis is as significant, and unpredictable, as the end of communism. “The collapse of the Soviet system was a pretty extraordinary event, and we are currently experiencing something similar in the developed world, without fully realizing what’s happening.” To Soros, the spectacular debunking of the credo of efficient markets—the notion that markets are rational and can regulate themselves to avert disaster—“is comparable to the collapse of Marxism as a political system. The prevailing interpretation has turned out to be very misleading. It assumes perfect knowledge, which is very far removed from reality. We need to move from the Age of Reason to the Age of Fallibility in order to have a proper understanding of the problems.”
Occupy Wall Street “is an inchoate, leaderless manifestation of protest,” but it will grow. It has “put on the agenda issues that the institutional left has failed to put on the agenda for a quarter of a century.”Understanding, he says, is key. “Unrestrained competition can drive people into actions that they would otherwise regret. The tragedy of our current situation is the unintended consequence of imperfect understanding. A lot of the evil in the world is actually not intentional. A lot of people in the financial system did a lot of damage without intending to.” Still, Soros believes the West is struggling to cope with the consequences of evil in the financial world just as former Eastern bloc countries struggled with it politically. Is he really saying that the financial whizzes behind our economic meltdown were not just wrong, but evil? “That’s correct.” Take that, Lloyd Blankfein, the Goldman Sachs boss who told The Sunday Times of London at the height of the financial crisis that bankers “do God’s work.” [...]
While Soros, whose new book, Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States, will be published in early February, is currently focused on Europe, he’s quick to claim that economic and social divisions in the U.S. will deepen, too. He sympathizes with the Occupy movement, which articulates a widespread disillusionment with capitalism that he shares. People “have reason to be frustrated and angry” at the cost of rescuing the banking system, a cost largely borne by taxpayers rather than shareholders or bondholders.
Occupy Wall Street “is an inchoate, leaderless manifestation of protest,” but it will grow. It has “put on the agenda issues that the institutional left has failed to put on the agenda for a quarter of a century.” He reaches for analysis, produced by the political blog ThinkProgress.org, that shows how the Occupy movement has pushed issues of unemployment up the agenda of major news organizations, including MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News. It reveals that in one week in July of last year the word “debt” was mentioned more than 7,000 times on major U.S. TV news networks. By October, mentions of the word “debt” had dropped to 398 over the course of a week, while “occupy” was mentioned 1,278 times, “Wall Street” 2,378 times, and “jobs” 2,738 times. You can’t keep a financier away from his metrics.
As anger rises, riots on the streets of American cities are inevitable. “Yes, yes, yes,” he says, almost gleefully. The response to the unrest could be more damaging than the violence itself. “It will be an excuse for cracking down and using strong-arm tactics to maintain law and order, which, carried to an extreme, could bring about a repressive political system, a society where individual liberty is much more constrained, which would be a break with the tradition of the United States.”

The Pathology of Inequality by Paul Buchheit / Common Dreams

The Pathology of Inequality

Inequality is a disease of society, a cancer growing out of control at one end of the body while the rest of it withers away.
It's not just about the money, although income and wealth inequality have never been worse in the United States. It's also the pathological adherence to free market principles that have not worked for most of the country. And a bizarre idolization of the 'innovators' who have rigged the financial system in their favor.
High-priced schemers and swindlers and scoundrels roam free on Wall Street, while the downtrodden are condemned for trying to survive. "If you steal $10 from a man's wallet," observed former Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel, "you're likely to get into a fight, but if you steal billions from the the commons, co-owned by him and his descendants, he may not even notice."
If you steal $10 from a man's wallet...
-- Leandro Andrade is serving a life sentence in California for stealing five videotapes from a K-Mart. He was convicted under the state's three strikes law, after convictions for petty theft, burglary, and possession of marijuana. Justice David Souter noted that Andrade "committed theft of trifling value...with no violent crimes against the person."
-- Sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott received double life sentences in 1994 for an $11 armed robbery, the first criminal offense for either of them. They spent 17 years in jail.
-- As of 2003 in California there were 344 individuals serving sentences of 25 years or more for shoplifting as a third offense, in many cases after two non-violent offenses.
If you steal billions from the commons...
-- The savings and loan fraud cost the nation between $300 billion and $500 billion, about 100 times more than the total cost of burglaries in 2010. The financial system bailout has already cost the country $3 trillion.
-- Goldman Sachs packaged bad debt, sold it under a different name, persuaded ratings services to label it AAA, and then bet against it by selling it short. Other firms accused of fraud and insider trading were Morgan Stanley, Bear Stearns, Bank of America, Countrywide Financial, and Wells Fargo.
-- The New York Times reported in 2008 that the Justice Department had postponed the bribery or fraud prosecutions of over 50 corporations, choosing instead to enter into agreements involving fines and 'monitoring' periods.
America is suffering from a "pathology of inequality," a term coined by Chilean economist Fernando Fajnzylber with regard to third-world Latin American countries that seemed autocratic and poverty-stricken at the time, but many of whom are now less unequal than the United States.
One percent of our body doesn't feel the pain. American Psychological Association research indicates that wealthier people "may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven't had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives."
As the body gets sicker, thinking becomes incoherent:
"The financial system led us into the crisis and it will lead us out." -- Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein. "Western-style private enterprise...will lead the world out of the mess it led the world into." -- Chicago Tribune. "If capitalism is perceived to not be working in America...it's because the system isn't capitalist enough." -- Rachel Marsden

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why No Responsible Democrat Should Want Newt Gingrich to Get the GOP Nomination / Robert Reich Blog

Why No Responsible Democrat Should Want Newt Gingrich to Get the GOP Nomination

Robert  Reich Blog
Thursday, January 26, 2012
Republicans are worried sick about Newt Gingrich’s ascendance, while Democrats are tickled pink.
Yet no responsible Democrat should be pleased at the prospect that Gingrich could get the GOP nomination. The future of America is too important to accept even a small risk of a Gingrich presidency.
The Republican worry is understandable. “The possibility of Newt Gingrich being our nominee against Barack Obama I think is essentially handling the election over to Obama,” says former Minnesota Governor Tom Pawlenty, a leading GOP conservative. “I think that’s shared by a lot of folks in the Republican party.”
Pawlenty’s views are indeed widely shared in Republican circles. “He’s not a conservative – he’s an opportunist,” says pundit Joe Scarborough, a member of the Republican Class of 1994 who came to Washington under Gingrich’s banner. Gingrich doesn’t “have the temperament, intellectual discipline or ego control to be either a successful nominee or president,”says New York Republican representative Peter King, who hasn’t endorsed any candidate. “Basically, Newt can’t control himself.”
Gingrich is “an embarrassment to the party,” says New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, and “was run out of the speakership” on ethics violations. Republican strategist Mike Murphy says “Newt Cingrich could not carry a swing state in the general election if it was made of feathers.”
“Weird” is the word I hear most from Republicans who have worked with him. Scott Klug, a former Republican House member from Wisconsin, who hasn’t endorsed anyone yet, says “Newt has ten ideas a day – two of them are good, six are weird and two are very weird.”
Newt’s latest idea, for example – to colonize the moon – is typically whacky.
The Republican establishment also points to polls showing Gingrich’s supporters to be enthusiastic but his detractors even more fired up. In the latest ABC News/ Washington Post poll, 29 percent view Gingrich favorably while 51 percent have an unfavorable view of him. (Obama, by contrast, draws a 53 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable.)
Independents, who will be key to the general election, are especially alarmed by Gingrich.
As they should be. It’s not just Newt’s weirdness. It’s also the stunning hypocrisy. His personal life makes a mockery of his moralistic bromides. He condemns Washington insiders but had a forty-year Washington career that ended with ethic violations. He fulminates against finance yet drew fat checks from Freddie Mac. He poses as a populist but has had a $500,000 revolving charge at Tiffany’s.
And it’s the flagrant irresponsibility of many of his propositions – for example, that presidents are not bound by Supreme Court rulings, that the liberal Ninth Circuit court of appeals should be abolished, that capital gains should not be taxed, that the First Amendment guarantees freedom “of” religion but not “from” religion.
It’s also Gingrich’s eagerness to channel the public’s frustrations into resentments against immigrants, blacks, the poor, Muslims, “liberal elites,” the mainstream media, and any other group that’s an easy target of white middle-class and working-class anger.
These are all the hallmarks of a demagogue.
Yet Democratic pundits, political advisers, officials and former officials are salivating over the possibility of a Gingrich candidacy. They agree with key Republicans that Newt would dramatically increase the odds of Obama’s reelection and would also improve the chances of Democrats taking control over the House and retaining control over the Senate.
I warn you. It’s not worth the risk.
Even if the odds that Gingrich as GOP presidential candidate would win the general election are 10 percent, that’s too much of a risk to the nation. No responsible American should accept a 10 percent risk of a President Gingrich.
I’d take a 49 percent odds of a Mitt Romney win – who in my view would make a terrible president – over a 10 percent possibility that Newt Gingrich would become the next president – who would be an unmitigated disaster for America and the world.

Conservative Fantasies About the Miracles of the Market by Robert Jensen by Robert Jensen / Common Dreams

Conservative Fantasies About the Miracles of the Market

A central doctrine of evangelicals for the “free market” is its capacity for innovation: New ideas, new technologies, new gadgets -- all flow not from governments but from individuals and businesses allowed to flourish in the market, we are told.
That’s the claim made in a recent op/ed in our local paper by policy analyst Josiah Neeley of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Austin. His conclusion: “Throughout history, technological advances have been driven by private investment, not by government fiat. There is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon.” http://www.statesman.com/opinion/cheap-energy-comes-when-market-rules-2105711.html
As is often the case in faith-based systems, reconciling doctrine to the facts of history can be tricky. When I read Neeley’s piece, I immediately thought of the long list of modern technological innovations that came directly from government-directed and -financed projects, most notably containerization, satellites, computers, and the Internet. The initial research-and-development for all these projects so central to the modern economy came from the government, often through the military, long before they were commercially viable. It’s true that individuals and businesses often used those innovations to create products and services for the market, but without the foundational research funded by government, none of those products and services could exist.
So I called Neeley and asked what innovations he had in mind when he wrote his piece. In an email response he cited Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers. Fair enough -- they were independent entrepreneurs, working in the late 19th and early 20th century. But their work came decades after the U.S. Army had provided the primary funding to make interchangeable parts possible, a transformative moment in the history of industrialization. In the “good old days,” government also got involved.
As Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway explain in their book Merchants of Doubt, the U.S. Army’s Ordinance Department wanted interchangeable parts to make guns that could be repaired easily on or near battlefields, which required machine-tooled parts. That research took nearly 50 years, much longer than any individual or corporation would support. The authors make the important point clearly: “Markets spread the technology of machine tools throughout the world, but markets did not create it. Centralized government, in the form of the U.S. Army, was the inventor of the modern machine age.”
That strikes me as an important part of the story of the era of Edison and the Wrights, but one conveniently ignored by free-marketeers.
Even more curious in Neeley’s response were the two specific products he mentioned in his email: “The plow wasn’t created by government fiat, and neither was the iPhone.”
The plow and the iPhone are the best examples of innovations in the private sphere? The plow was invented thousands of years ago, in a world in which governments and economic systems were organized in just slightly different ways, making it an odd example for this discussion of modern capitalism and the nation-state. And the iPhone wouldn’t exist without all that government R&D that created computers and the Internet.
Neeley didn’t try to deny the undeniable role of government and military funding; for example, he mentioned the Saturn V rocket (a case made even more interesting, of course, because Nazi scientists were brought into the United States after World War II to work on the project). “But the driver of these advances’ adoption and relevance outside the realm of government fiat has always been the private sphere,” he wrote in his response.
Neeley is playing a painfully transparent game here. He acknowledges that many basic technological advances are driven by government fiat in the basic R&D phase, but somehow that phase doesn’t matter. What matters is the “adoption and relevance” phase. It’s apparently not relevant that without the basic R&D in these cases there would have been nothing to adopt and make relevant for the market.
We’re in real Wizard of Oz territory here -- pay no attention to the scientists working behind the curtain, who are being paid with your tax dollars. Just step up to the counter and pay the corporate wizards for their products and services, without asking about the tax-funded research on which they rely.
There are serious questions to be debated about how public money should be spent on which kinds of R&D, especially when so much of that money comes through the U.S. military, whose budget many of us think is bloated. More transparency is needed in that process.
But anyone who cares about honest argumentation should be offended on principled grounds by Neeley’s sleight of hand. His distortion of history is especially egregious given the context of his op/ed, which argues against public support for solar energy in favor of the expansion of oil and gas drilling. Neeley focuses on the failure of Solyndra -- the solar panel manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy after getting a $535 million federal loan guarantee -- in trying to make a case against government support for alternative energy development. When public subsidies fail, there should be a vigorous investigation. But the failure of one company, hitched to a highly distorted story about the history of technological innovation, doesn’t make for a strong argument against any public support for solutions to the energy crisis, nor does it cover up the fact that the increasing use of fossil fuels accelerates climate change/disruption.
The larger context for this assertion of market fundamentalism is the ongoing political project to de-legitimize any collective action by ordinary people through government. Given the degree to which corporations and the wealthy dominate contemporary government, from the local to the national level, it’s not clear why elites are so flustered; they are the ones who benefit most from government spending. But politicians and pundits who serve those elites keep hammering away on a simple theme -- business good, government bad -- hoping to make sure that the formal mechanisms of democracy won’t be used to question the concentration of wealth and power.
Throughout history, the political projects of the wealthy have been driven by propaganda. There is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon, which means popular movements for economic justice and ecological sustainability not only have to struggle to change the future but also to tell the truth about the past.

Ten Steps for Radical Revolution in the US by Bill Quigley / Common Dreams

Ten Steps for Radical Revolution in the US

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967
One. Human rights must be taken absolutely seriously. Every single person is entitled to dignity and human rights. No application needed. No exclusions at all. This is our highest priority.
Two. We must radically reinvent contemporary democracy. Current systems are deeply corrupt and not responsive to the needs of people. Representatives chosen by money and influence govern by money and influence. This is unacceptable. Direct democracy by the people is now technologically possible and should be the rule. Communities must be protected whenever they advocate for self-determination, self-development and human rights. Dissent is essential to democracy; we pledge to help it flourish.
Three. Corporations are not people and are not entitled to human rights. Amend the US Constitution so it is clear corporations do not have constitutional or human rights. We the people must cut them down to size and so democracy can regulate their size, scope and actions.
Four. Leave the rest of the world alone. Cut US military spending by 75 percent and bring all troops outside the US home now. Defense of the US is a human right. Global offense and global police force by US military are not. Eliminate all nuclear and chemical and biological weapons. Stop allowing scare tactics to build up the national security forces at home. Stop the myth that the US is somehow special or exceptional and is entitled to act differently than all other nations. The US must re-join the global family of nations as a respectful partner. USA is one of many nations in the world. We must start acting like it.
Five. Property rights, privilege, and money-making are not as important as human rights. When current property and privilege arrangements are not just they must yield to the demands of human rights. Money-making can only be allowed when human rights are respected. Exploitation is unacceptable. There are national and global poverty lines. We must establish national and global excess lines so that people and businesses with extra houses, cars, luxuries, and incomes share much more to help everyone else be able to exercise their basic human rights to shelter, food, education and healthcare. If that disrupts current property, privilege and money-making, so be it.
Six. Defend our earth. Stop pollution, stop pipelines, stop new interstates, and stop destroying the land, sea, and air by extracting resources from them. Rebuild what we have destroyed. If corporations will not stop voluntarily, people must stop them. The very existence of life is at stake.
We respect the human rights and human dignity of others and work for a world where love and wisdom and solidarity and respect prevail.
Seven. Dramatically expand public spaces and reverse the privatization of public services. Quality public education, health and safety for all must be provided by transparent accountable public systems. Starving the state is a recipe for destroying social and economic human rights for everyone but the rich.
Eight. Pull the criminal legal prison system up and out by its roots and start over. Cease the criminalization of drugs, immigrants, poor people and people of color. We are all entitled to be safe but the current system makes us less so and ruins millions of lives. Start over.
Nine. The US was created based on two original crimes that must be confessed and made right. Reparations are owed to Native Americans because their land was stolen and they were uprooted and slaughtered. Reparations are owed to African Americans because they were kidnapped, enslaved and abused. The US has profited widely from these injustices and must make amends.
Ten. Everyone who wants to work should have the right to work and earn a living wage. Any workers who want to organize and advocate for change in solidarity with others must be absolutely protected from recriminations from their employer and from their government.
Finally, if those in government and those in power do not help the people do what is right, people seeking change must together exercise our human rights and bring about these changes directly. Dr. King and millions of others lived and worked for a radical revolution of values. We will as well. We respect the human rights and human dignity of others and work for a world where love and wisdom and solidarity and respect prevail. We expect those for whom the current unjust system works just fine will object and oppose and accuse people seeking dramatic change of being divisive and worse. That is to be expected because that is what happens to all groups which work for serious social change. Despite that, people will continue to go forward with determination and purpose to bring about a radical revolution of values in the USA.

Progressives "Furious" at Emerging Details of Mortgage Deal / Common Dreams

Critics of Mortgage Deal Press Obama, State AGs to Reject Big Bank Proposal

Progressives "Furious" at Emerging Details of Mortgage Deal

- Common Dreams staff
A long anticipated draft settlement between the nation's largest private mortgage lenders and US states has been announced, but it doesn't look good for industry critics who hoped the banking giants — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Ally Financial —would suffer full investigations and payouts equal to the damage they caused to homeowners and the overall economy. The deal would still have to be accepted by the states.
  Occupy Wall Street demonstrators block an entrance to a Bank of America building during a protest aimed to disrupt the city's financial district in San Francisco, California January 20, 2012. Weeks after their eviction from several area encampments, anti-Wall Street activists in San Francisco, including a former Pacific Stock Exchange president, are vowing to disrupt the city's financial district on Friday with a series of protests. (REUTERS/Stephen Lam) UPDATE: George Zornick writes at The Nation:
Obama Is on the Brink of a Settlement With the Big Banks—and Progressives Are Furious
For months, a massive federal settlement with big Wall Street banks over their role in the mortgage crisis has been in the offing. The rumored details have always given progressives heartburn: civil immunity, no investigations, inadequate help for homeowners and a small penalty for the banks. Now, on the eve President Obama’s State of the Union address—in which he plans to further advance a populist message against big money and income inequality—the deal may be here, and it’s every bit as ugly as progressives feared.
UPDATE: Wall Street Accountability Advocates to Obama: Stand Against a Sweetheart Deal With the Big Banks
In a statement, Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, had this to say:
“Americans from across the political spectrum are angry that the Wall Street banks blew up the economy and got bailed out, while home owners and taxpayers were stuck with the bill.
“This is a fundamental question of justice and democracy. The law is respected only if it is enforced. Cutting a settlement with the banks before there is an investigation violates our basic sense of justice. No one who robbed a bank would be offered immunity, a modest fine and no admission of guilt – before there was an investigation into who stole the money and how much they took.
“And there is a fundamental question of whether the democracy can hold the wealthiest few accountable. Americans are increasingly cynical about politicians, believing that Wall Street can buy and sell Washington. This is destructive to our democracy. The President’s campaign will highlight his commitment to fair rules and a fair shot for every American. A sweetheart deal with the banks would be a glaring contradiction to that theme. Any deal, enforced over the objections of the most independent Attorneys General, like New York’s Eric Schneiderman, will fail that test.
“What the people want is clear: Investigation before immunity. Penalize the perpetrators, not their victims. Any settlement must have sufficient scope to deal with the scale of the problem. There is an estimated $700 billion of negative equity in underwater homes. While 1 million homeowners have been helped by efforts to save homeowners, 10.7 million homeowners are underwater and that does not count people who have already suffered foreclosure. The top six banks paid bonuses worth $140 billion last year alone, or $420 billion over the last three years. They hold assets of $9.5 trillion. The rumored settlement of $25 billion is barely a slap on the wrist.
“It is vital to this country that the banks are made accountable. It is vital that they do not see the law as simply a minor price of doing profitable business, a speed bump on the way to their bonuses.
As Simon Johnson writes at Politico, the Obama administration is in danger in pushing this failed policy at just the wrong time:Robo-signing. (Illustration by Matt Mahurin)
The Obama administration has continued to press for a small-scale settlement of the alleged abuses around mortgage practices, repeating and compounding the mistake. The White House has routinely overlooked voters’ dismay at its favoring “too big to fail” banks. But given how its electoral base is now reacting, this time may be different — because a lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters in swing states could cost President Barack Obama reelection.
The Obama administration’s pattern of behavior is unmistakable. Its first, and worst, decision was to keep the management and boards of big banks in place — despite the fact that these financial institutions had been driven into the ground by incompetence, greed and notoriously failed governance.
And AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka, had this to say in response to reports about the deal:
Obama's campaign will highlight his commitment to fair rules and a fair shot for every American. A sweetheart deal with the banks would be a glaring contradiction to that theme. Any deal, enforced over the objections of the most independent Attorneys General, like New York’s Eric Schneiderman, will fail that test.
The economy is currently weighed down by $750 billion in negative home equity, so relief on a massive scale is needed to lift home values and stimulate the economy by increasing consumer demand. A comprehensive settlement must force banks to write down underwater mortgages. A sum significantly larger than the rumored $25 billion is needed for the economy to grow and create jobs.
Specifically, the administration must stand strong against the big banks and insist on:
1) A full and thorough investigation into problems tied to the residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) market, and
2) A guaranteed minimum amount of money set aside for reducing the mortgage principal of "underwater" homeowners in key states impacted by the foreclosure crisis.
This is an opportunity for the administration to demonstrate leadership and show that it has the political will to do what's right for homeowners and right for our economy.
Naked Capitalism's Yves Smith was indignant, pointing out that Obama is poised to use this deal to point towards "bank accountability" when it would, in her mind, be the opposite:
It’s yet another gambit designed to generate a campaign talking point while making the underlying problem worse.
Obama’s latest housing market chicanery should come as no surprise. As we discuss below, he will use the State of the Union address to announce a mortgage “settlement” by Federal regulators, and at least some state attorneys general. It’s yet another gambit designed to generate a campaign talking point while making the underlying problem worse.
The president seems to labor under the misapprehension that crimes by members of the elite must be swept under the rug because prosecuting them would destabilize the system. What he misses is that we are well past the point where coverups will work, and they may even blow up before the November elections. If nothing else, his settlement pact has a non-trivial Constitutional problem which the Republicans, if they are smart, will use to undermine the deal and discredit the Administration.
To add insult to injury, Obama is apparently going to present his belated Christmas present to the banking industry as a boon to ordinary citizens. He refused to appoint a real middle class advocate, Elizabeth Warren, to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but he’s not above stealing her talking points.
Earlier today the Associated Press reported:
The nation's five largest mortgage lenders have agreed to overhaul their industry after deceptive foreclosure practices drove homeowners out of their homes, government officials said Monday.
A draft settlement between the banks and U.S. states has been sent to state officials for review.
Those who lost their homes to foreclosure are unlikely to get their homes back or benefit much financially from the settlement, which could be as high as $25 billion. About 750,000 Americans — about half of the households who might be eligible for assistance under the deal — will likely receive checks for about $1,800.
Others, however, would fret and perhaps re-phrase the AP report to read instead, "as low as $25 billion." Van Jones, of Rebuild the Dream, and George Goehl, of National People's Action, in an op-ed today, called for the settlement to be no less than "$300 billion," calling something closer to $20 billion "an astonishingly small fraction of what's needed."
Add up all the underwater homes in America, and there's an estimated $700 billion in negative equity in the country, according to a recent study. If banks fix what they broke and write down principals for all underwater mortgages, this would free up millions of people to pump billions of dollars back into local economies, create jobs, and ultimately generate revenue to help invest in things that will help our economy grow.
In addition, they say, the settlement must not preclude further investigations into the robo-signing debacle and the creation of the mortgage crisis that left millions underwater or out of their homes after what they claim were illegal foreclosures.
As the AP report continues:
Critics, including some members of Congress, say they want a thorough investigation of potentially illegal foreclosure practices before a settlement is hammered out.
"Wall Street again is trying to pass the buck. Instead of criminal prosecutions, we're talking about something that's not more than a slap on the wrist," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has been critical of the proposed settlement.
Yves Smith, writing at Naked Capitalism, gets into the details of the proposal (though she acknowledges its impossible at this point to have a precise understanding of what the final deal looks like):
...previous leaks have indicated that the bulk of the supposed settlement would come not in actual monies paid by the banks (the cash portion has been rumored at under $5 billion) but in credits given for mortgage modifications for principal modifications. There are numerous reasons why that stinks. The biggest is that servicers will be able to count modifying first mortgages that were securitized toward the total. Since one of the cardinal rules of finance is to use other people’s money rather than your own, this provision virtually guarantees that investor-owned mortgages will be the ones to be restructured. Why is this a bad idea? The banks are NOT required to write down the second mortgages that they have on their books. This reverses the contractual hierarchy that junior lien-holders take losses before senior lenders. So this deal amounts to a transfer from pension funds and other fixed income investors to the banks, at the Administration’s instigation.
Another reason the modification provision is poorly structured is that the banks are given a dollar target to hit. That means they will focus on modifying the biggest mortgages. So help will go to a comparatively small number of grossly overhoused borrowers, no doubt reinforcing the “profligate borrower” meme.
And NPR reports this morning on another prominent government figure who has resisted appeasing the banks:NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman may reject a settlement with big banks over the robo-signing scandal. He says authorities have done too little to investigate the banks' role in the financial crisis. (Frank Franklin II/AP)
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is raising objections, and may reject the settlement because he believes authorities have done too little to investigate the role of big banks in the financial crisis.
On a ride with the attorney general in his state-issued SUV, we pass the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Schneiderman didn't take part in the protests, but he agrees with some of the message.
"People aren't sure what happened, but they know that ... this was a man-made catastrophe, [and] that there are people who caused the bubble and the crash," he says.
This sentiment is echoed by Jones and Goehl, when they write, "The banks got their bailout. Now we need a strong and fair settlement to help Americans drowning in underwater mortgages."

Friday, January 27, 2012

The State of Our Disunion: A Globalizing Private Sector, A Government Overwhelmed by Corporate Money by Robert Reich

The State of Our Disunion: A Globalizing Private Sector, A Government Overwhelmed by Corporate Money

Who should have the primary strategic responsibility for making American workers globally competitive – the private sector or government? This will be a defining issue in the 2012 campaign..
In his State of the Union address, President Obama will make the case that government has a vital role. His Republican rivals disagree. Mitt Romney charges the President is putting “free enterprise on trial,” while Newt Gingrich merely fulminates about “liberal elites.”
American business won’t and can’t lead the way to more and better jobs in the United States. First, the private sector is increasingly global, with less and less stake in America. Second, it’s driven by the necessity of creating profits, not better jobs.
The National Science Foundation has just released its biennial report on global investment in science, engineering and technology. The NSF warns that the United States is quickly losing ground to Asia, especially to China. America’s share of global R&D spending is tumbling. In the decade to 2009, it dropped from 38 percent to 31 percent, while Asia’s share rose from 24 to 35 percent.
One big reason: According to the NSF, American firms nearly doubled their R&D investment in Asia over these years, to over $7.5 billion.
GE recently announced a $500 million expansion of its R&D facilities in China. The firm has already invested $2 billion.
GE’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt chairs Obama’s council on work and competitiveness. I’d wager that as an American citizen, Immelt is concerned about working Americans. But as CEO of GE, Immelt’s job is to be concerned about GE’s shareholders. They aren’t the same.
GE has also been creating more jobs outside the United States than in it. A decade ago, fewer than half of GE’s employees were non-American; today, 54 percent are.
This is all good for GE and its shareholders, but it’s not necessarily good for America or American workers. The Commerce Department says U.S. based global corporations added 2.4 million workers abroad in first decade of 21st century, while cutting their US workforce by 2.9 million.
According to the New York Times, Apple Computer employs 43,000 people in the United States but contracts with over 700,000 workers abroad. It makes iPhones in China not only because of low wages there but also the ease and speed with which its Chinese contractor can mobilize their workers – from company dormitories at almost any hour of the day or night.
An Apple executive says “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” He might have added “and showing a big enough profits to continually increase our share price.”
Most executives of American companies agree. If they can make it best and cheapest in China, or anywhere else, that’s where it will be made. Don’t blame them. That’s what they’re getting paid to do.
What they want in America is lower corporate taxes, less regulation, and fewer unionized workers. But none of these will bring good jobs to America. These steps may lower the costs of production here, but global companies can always find even lower costs abroad.
Global corporations — wherever they’re based — will create good jobs for Americans only if Americans are productive enough to summon them. Problem is, a large and growing portion of our workforce isn’t equipped to be productive.
Put simply, American workers are hobbled by deteriorating schools, unaffordable college tuitions, decaying infrastructure, and declining basic R&D. All of this is putting us on a glide path toward even lousier jobs and lower wages.
Get it? The strategic responsibility for making Americans more globally competitive can’t be centered in the private sector because the private sector is rapidly going global, and it’s designed to make profits rather than good jobs. The core responsibility has to be in government because government is supposed to be looking out for the public, and investing in public schools, colleges, infrastructure, and basic R&D.
But here’s the political problem. American firms have huge clout in Washington. They maintain legions of lobbyists and are pouring boatloads of money into political campaigns. After the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, there’s no limit.
Who represents the American workforce? Organized labor represents fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers and has all it can do to protect a dwindling number of unionized jobs.
Republicans like it this way, and for three decades have been trying to convince average working Americans government is their enemy. Yet corporate America isn’t their friend. Without bold government action on behalf of our workforce, good American jobs will continue to disappear.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Hunger Is A ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’, Says Jean Ziegler By Siv O'Neall / ICH

Hunger Is A ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’, Says Jean Ziegler

By Siv O'Neall
"Every five seconds, a child under 10 dies of hunger. – Thirty-five million people die each year from hunger or its immediate aftermath. – One billion people are permanently and severely malnourished and the situation is becoming increasingly catastrophic." (Jean Ziegler)

January 21, 2012 "
Information Clearing House" ---
-- In his latest book “Mass Destruction – the Geopolitics of Hunger”, Jean Ziegler[1] talks about the current state of the world and the neoliberal politics of starvation of the poor, which has led to a crisis situation amounting to calculated murder. What we are witnessing today is the worst hunger crisis in human history is. And it is all because of human greed, colossal mismanagement for profit.
Professor Ziegler deals in detail with the various causes of the current worldwide hunger disaster, which could have been avoided. This crisis is not determined by fate – or, to use Ziegler’s own word – ‘La famine n’est pas une fatalité’. The world could perfectly well provide food for 12 million people, almost the double of the present population of 7 million.
So what made this murderous situation possible where thousands of people are dying (37,000 every day) from lack of food and clean water? La famine n’est pas une fatalité. It could have been avoided. It should not be happening.
The agroindustry is killing off small farmers – some countries are fighting back
The goals of the ‘cold monsters’ (les monstres froids) of the agroindustry, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill and Bunge, et al. is to suck the life out of small farmers all over the world, especially in Africa and southern Asia.
The exceptional development that is taking place today in Latin America is liberating it from the grip of neoliberalism. This can only emphasize the point that the horrible famine that is seen in Africa and south Asia should never have happened. Latin America is forcefully fighting against dependency on the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) – the three horsemen of the Apocalypse, in Jean Ziegler’s own words.
Redistribution of land from large estates with huge tracts of uncultivated areas to small farmers has proven extremely effective in raising the standard of living, in helping the poorest of the poor in several Latin American countries. These countries have wrenched themselves free from the killer treaties like NAFTA, CAFTA and FTAA[2], created exclusively for rich North America to take over the natural resources in the southern hemisphere.
The United States is intimately tied in with the Transnational Corporations (TNC) and they are firmly determined to end up owning the world. The way they proceed is to first take over the valuable commodities everywhere, in Latin America as well as in Africa and now also in India. Let us not forget that Latin America used to be quite naturally counted on as the backyard of the U.S. The leftist liberation movements to the south of its borders have been a bad blow to the deeply rooted feelings of superiority and selfrighteousness that Americans have always taken for granted.
Latin American countries have now created trade treaties of their own, like MERCOSUR and ALBA. However, It remains to be seen how well MERCOSUR will be able to stand up to U.S. imperialism.
Organized hunger has been made the order of the day, without any visible protest
It was done step by step, in the deepest secrecy, since the Main-Stream Media (MSM) did not even touch on the subject, if they knew about it at all. And all the time we were thinking: ‘There must be a way back. This can not go on.’ And then it went on. And it got worse. And worse.
The transnational corporations essentially own the western governments and they are running the world for the profit of their own cabal, and for profit alone.
The small farmers, the subsistence farmers who produced enough food to provide for their families and for selling at the market for a modest income, are being ruined, by careful planning.
The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse of organized hunger, the supra-state organizations IMF, The World Bank and the WTO carry out the wishes of the major food companies. The major three are Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Bunge. These cold monsters are able to fix the prices of food through the powers they have given themselves as cartels or monopolies.
The small farmers in Africa and elsewhere needed help to go on with their hard work to support their families and to produce food for the country. Droughts, military conflicts, political crises, natural catastrophes, man-made emergency situations, all these contributed to recurrent food crises.
IMF was ready to extend big loans, BUT with strings attached. Structural adjustment programs would follow and the people were the victims.[3] There was now less money for the governments to spend on education, health care, food aid to the desperately poor, infrastructure – and the list goes on. Unemployment and poverty increased and new loans were needed, if only to pay off the interest on the old loans to the tiger sharks, ‘les requins tigres’ – Jean Ziegler’s term. Now the third world countries are enslaved in a vicious spiral of debts.

There is of course also disastrous corruption among the leaders of the countries in need that prevents the money from many well-intentioned NGOs from getting into the right hands.
To add to the many problems small farmers are faced with, there is also the other product of Western greed – big companies buying up land for huge plantations whenever the farmers are forced to sell at a ridiculously low price. And so those former poor but proud subsistence farmers are now forced to work for a pittance for the big landlords who, instead of producing food to feed the native people, grow cotton, green beans, coffee, tea, cocoa, peanuts and other crops to sell to the rich countries. And these foods for the wealthy are often produced by small children, severely exploited by cruel farmers. Slave labor conditions are the rule.
Jean Ziegler points out in ‘Destruction massive’, p.327
“The ideologues of the World Bank are infinitely more dangerous than the sad marketing agents Bolloré, Vilgrain (French investors in Africa) and company. With hundreds of millions of dollars of credits and subsidies, the World Bank funds the theft of arable land in Africa, Asia, Latin America.”
Food has to be imported – all for the profit of the big corporations. Poor people can not afford buying imported food at artificially high prices. Children go hungry, pregnant mothers are undernourished and so their babies are born with what can be called birth defects. Very importantly, their brains are insufficiently developed and this deficiency can never be recovered. A large number of the infants die before the age of two.
Malnutrition is rampant and it causes unimaginably horrible diseases, such as noma, which is far less known than the killer diseases such as malaria, dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria and other infectious diseases. Noma is not an infectious disease but it has been proven that it is due to severe and chronic malnutrition.[4]
For the United States and their mercenary organizations, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO the UN declaration of the Universal Right to Food[5] has no importance whatsoever. It is very simply ignored.
Attempts by global structures to make the right to food a human right

"The ‘United Nations’ is a term that appeared for the first time in 1941. It was tied to the combat against hunger. The World War was raging and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met on the battleship USS-Augusta in the Atlantic off Newfoundland. What came out of that meeting was the first major attempt to create a document declaring the basic freedoms of man, including Freedom from want and Freedom from fear.

“US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 6, 1941, in an address known as the Four Freedoms speech proposed four fundamental freedoms that people "everywhere in the world" ought to enjoy:
1. Freedom of speech and expression
2. Freedom of worship
3. Freedom from want
4. Freedom from fear
"His inclusion of the latter two freedoms went beyond the traditional US Constitutional values protected by its First Amendment, and endorsed a right to economic security and an internationalist view of foreign policy.”
From The Atlantic Charter which was an outcome of the meeting on the USS-Augusta, articles 4 and 6 state:
“Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;

“Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;” (Destruction massive, pp. 139-140)
Jean Ziegler talks about the origin of the world food programs, p. 201:

FAO [the Food and Agriculture Organization] and the World Food Programme (WFP) are the big and beautiful legacy of Josué de Castro.[6] These two institutions are threatened with ruin.
They were born, as we have seen, when the great awakening of consciousness took place in Europe that was emerging from the night of fascism: the FAO in 1945, the WFP in 1963.
The sad fate of those two organizations, however, is that they were both rendered fairly helpless when the current economic crisis took hold of the world. The mandate of the WFP is precisely to eliminate hunger and poverty in the world, but with a severely reduced budget, how were they going to reach their goal?
Jean Ziegler writes (p. 216):
“On October 22, 2008, the 17 heads of state and government from the euro zone countries gathered at the Palais de l'Elysée in Paris. At 6 o’clock, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy appeared on the front steps of the palace, in front of the press. They declared to the reporters: "We have to free 1,700 billion to remobilize the interbank lending and to raise the floor of auto-financing of the banks by 3 to 5%." Before the end of the year 2008, subsidies from the countries in the euro zone for emergency food aid decreased by almost 50 %. The WFP budget was about $ 6 billion. It fell in 2009 to $ 3.2 billion.

“For 2011, WFP evaluates its minimal needs to $ 7 billion. Until early December 2010, they had received $ 2.7 billion. This loss in revenues has had dramatic consequences.”

Jean Ziegler goes on to say:
“For the United States and its mercenary organizations – the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank – the
right to food is an aberration. To them, there are no human rights except civil and political.
“Behind the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the Washington government and its traditional allies, appear of course the huge private transcontinental companies. The increasing control these transcontinental corporations exert on vast sectors of food production and trade have of course significantly affected the exercise of the right to food.” (Destruction massive, p. 155)
Food for fuel
Another highly important factor in the increasingly catastrophic problem of hunger in the world is of course the use of food for fuel, which has been dealt with in some detail in the essay ‘Food for fuel, a sure way of creating a hunger crisis’ By Jean Ziegler and Siv O'Neall
It is of course perfectly clear to anybody who thinks with his brain, that growing sugar cane, wheat, corn or other food crops in huge plantations for the use of making ethanol for energy, first of all takes land away from small farmers and, secondly, ruins useful food to put gasoline in SUVs that we don’t really need.
In addition to this obvious truth, there is the crucial fact that the making of ethanol uses up more energy than it produces. It also gives off an enormous amount of carbon dioxide in the process.
Explosive increase in food prices beginning in 2007
The stage is open to the real tiger sharks, the financial speculators. Without the slightest shade of a moral conscience, they speculate on the value of a harvest, on land value, on currencies. Is it going up or down? In either case, they win, since they always hedge their bets. The noxious ‘futures trading’ has opened up the commodity market to conscience-free sharks who care only for the fast buck. These men are not dealing in any real product. They don’t sell or buy grain or anything whatever. They just speculate in the fate of these commodities, land, currencies.
The prices of corn, rice and wheat are literally exploding because of market speculation on the basic commodities. This is the Market neoliberalism that was once made out to be the self-regulating force of the Free Market.
The governments can well see the abyss that is open in front of them, but they obediently bail out the banks when the gamblers cause a total breakdown and the banks go bankrupt.
Jean Ziegler writes (p. 78):
"The speculative madness of the predators of the globalized financial capital has cost Western industrial states in 2008-2009, $ 8,900 billion in all. Western states have in particular paid trillions of dollars to bail out delinquent bankers."
Neoliberals claim that no regulations are needed, because the market is regulating itself. That way they are free to speculate, to trade indefinitely and, in many cases, without even paying capital gains taxes, without any insight or any rules. There are of course also the tax-free havens where speculators can gamble with their billions without the slightest insight or taxation.
The whole point is to the neoliberal sharks that the rich must get richer and the poor must be made powerless. The numbers of the poor have been increasing drastically ever since the beginning of neoliberalism in the eighties (exploratory beginnings in Latin America already in the seventies, with catastrophic results). Poor people are made to be so invisible, so voiceless that they can be totally disregarded. Which is precisely the goal of neoliberalism.
It is mind-blowing how the world can have come to a situation where it is being run by hungry sharks with no understanding of how the world economy can function in a rational way. The gamblers follow no rules whatsoever, except profit, and humanitarian considerations have no place in this casino.
What Jean Ziegler is doing in such an expert and passionate way in his latest book is denouncing the monstrosities of the world we live in, using his typical forceful style, with his trademark of genuine human empathy. He is explaining how we got to be where we are and what has to be done to remedy the gross negligence of human rights.
We can no more sit lethargically in our comfortable homes, watching the blatant propaganda that is fed to us through the Main-Stream Media, listening to the biased reports about the U.S. wars that are fought, so they tell us, in the name of freedom and democracy. The truth is that the wars are fought to make huge profits for the arms industries and all the big corporations. Take over lands and nations by war or by insidious so-called ‘aid’ that ensnares the nations in a net of debts that it is impossible to get out of.
After reading Jean Ziegler’s book, one is convinced that the time has come to act on what we know to be the truth. The West is corrupt to the gills and, if we the people are too lethargic, ignorant or frightened to do something NOW, then the pillars of the world will crumble. And that will be the end.
[1] ‘Destruction massive – Géopolitique de la faim’ published in October 2011 ; Éditions du Seuil ; Jean Ziegler, a former professor of sociology at the University of Geneva and the Sorbonne, Paris, is member of the UN Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee with an expertise on economic, social and cultural rights. For the period 2000-2008, Jean Ziegler was the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In March 2008, Jean Ziegler was elected Member of the UN Human Rights Council's Advisory Committee. One year later, the Human Rights Council decided, by acclamation, to re-elect Jean Ziegler as a member of the Advisory Committee, a post he will now hold until 2012. In August 2009, the members of the Advisory Committee elected Jean Ziegler as Vice-President of the forum.
[2] NAFTA = North American Free Trade Agreement; CAFTA = Central America Free Trade Agreement; FTAA = Free Trade Area of the Americas
[3] A study by Oxfam (Oxford Committee for Famine Relief) which has become famous showed that wherever the IMF applied a structural adjustment plan during the decade 1990-2000, millions of more people were thrown into the abyss of hunger. Jean Ziegler: Destruction massive; p.179
[4] For the horribly disfiguring and ultimately deadly disease called noma see ‘NOMA – The Face of Poverty’, By Siv O'Neall and the UN report 'The tragedy of Noma' by Mr. Jean Ziegler, Vice-President of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee.
[5] On December 10, 1948, the 64 members of the UN unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It recognises in Article 25 that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_food
[6] This Brazilian doctor and physiologist (1908 – 1973) to whom Jean Ziegler devotes two entire chapters in Destruction Massive, was an ardent fighter for the right to food, starting with his homeland in the Nordeste region of Brazil. When his book Geografia da fome (Geography of hunger) was published in 1946, de Castro already had a long career behind him. He became a world famous fighter for the right to food, and in particular he had studied the effects of undernourishment and child malnutrition. He fled from Brazil to Paris in 1964 because of the barbaric military dictatorship that ravaged Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Geografia da fome has been translated into 26 languages.
Siv O'Neall was born and raised in Sweden where she graduated from Lund University. She has lived in Paris, France and New Rochelle, N.Y. and traveled extensively throughout the U.S, Europe, and other continents, including several trips to India.