Friday, January 21, 2011

JP Morgan Gets Tax-Payer Dollars from Food-Stamps

By Michael Snyder | Sourced from The Economic Collapse 
JP Morgan is the largest processor of food stamp benefits in the United States.  JP Morgan has contracted to provide food stamp debit cards in 26 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.  JP Morgan is paid for each case that it handles, so that means that the more Americans that go on food stamps, the more profits JP Morgan makes.  When the number of Americans on food stamps goes up, JP Morgan makes more money.  In the video posted below, JP Morgan executive Christopher Paton admits that this is "a very important business to JP Morgan" and that it is doing very well.  Considering the fact that the number of Americans on food stamps has exploded from 26 million in 2007 to 43 million today, one can only imagine how much JP Morgan's profits in this area have soared.  Doesn't this give JP Morgan an incentive to keep the number of Americans enrolled in the food stamp program as high as possible?

There are just some things that are a little too "creepy" to be "outsourced" to private corporations.  The JP Morgan executive in the interview below does his best to put a positive spin on all this, but it just seems really unsavory for a big Wall Street bank to be making so much money off of the suffering of tens of millions of Americans....


So if unemployment goes down will this ruin JP Morgan's food stamp business?

Well, apparently not. In the interview Paton says that 40% of food stamp recipients are currently working, and he seems convinced that there could be further "growth" in that segment.

So is this what America is turning into?

A place where tens of millions of the unemployed and the working poor crawl over to Wal-Mart and the dollar store every month to use the food stamp debit cards provided to them by JP Morgan?

It turns out that JP Morgan also provides child support debit cards in 15 U.S. states and they also provide unemployment insurance benefit debit cards in seven states.

Apparently states have found that they can save millions of dollars by "outsourcing" the provision of these benefits to big financial firms like JP Morgan.

So what happens if you have a problem with your food stamp debit card?

Well, you call up a JP Morgan service center. When you do this, there is a very good chance that you are going to be helped by a JP Morgan call center employee in India.

That's right - it turns out that JP Morgan is saving money by "outsourcing" food stamp customer service calls to India.

JP Morgan is the only one today still operating public-assistance call centers overseas. When ABC News asked JP Morgan about this, the company would not tell ABC News which states have customer service calls sent to India and which states have them handled inside the United States. That decision, the company said, was often left up to the individual states.

JP Morgan has been moving some of these call center jobs back inside the United States due to political pressure, but this whole situation is a really good example of what the "global economy" is doing to middle class Americans.

Just try to imagine the irony - a formerly middle class American that has lost a job to outsourcing calls up to get help with food stamp benefits only to be answered by a call center employee in India.

Welcome to the global economy, eh?

But wait, there is more.

It has just been announced that JP Morgan has admitted that they wrongly foreclosed on over a dozen military families and that they have been overcharging "thousands" of other military families on their mortgages.

It is a really bad public relations move to mess with military families. Is anyone over at JP Morgan even paying attention?

JP Morgan has also been one of the primary financial institutions involved in the foreclosure "robo-signing" scandal.

They just seem to be having all kinds of problems lately. But they are not alone.

The truth is that we have gotten to the point where big Wall Street banks such as JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley just have way, way too much power.

The biggest Wall Street financial institutions had no trouble begging for bailouts from the U.S. government during the financial crisis, but when the American people have needed a little grace and mercy from them they have been less than helpful.

Top Documentaries

I want to give props to a website called TopDocumentaryFilms.com .They host links to literally hundreds of documentary films on a wide variety of topics. Now, I typically gravitate to the ones regarding the current economic mess and the shift of our government to authoritarian rule (no matter which puppet is charge), but I do watch films on other topics too.

So, now a list of recommendations (I'll do this from time to time).

Top 10 Documentaries for Mr. Jefro Today

10. The Beauty of Maps
Documentary series looking at maps in incredible detail to highlight their artistic attributions and reveal the stories that they tell.
09. Bukowski: Born Into This
Director John Dullaghan’s biographical documentary about infamous poet Charles Bukowski is as much a touching portrait of the author as it is an exposĂ© of his sordid lifestyle.
08. Bruce Lee – A Warrior’s Journey
Bruce Lee was inarguably the greatest martial arts star of his generation, and his intense on-screen charisma and astounding fighting skills make him the standard by which other martial arts heroes are measured.
07. Beyond Treason
Department of Defense documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act expose the horrific underworld of the "disposable army" mentality and the government funded experimentation upon US citizens conducted without their knowledge or consent.
06. A World Without Water
As less and less water is available, you have yet another problem being added and that is the problem of privatization. There are companies now saying ‘why don’t we bottle it, mine it, divert it, sell it, commodify it.’ Every day 3900 children die as a result of insufficient or unclean water supplies.
05. Big Bucks, Big Pharma: Marketing Disease & Pushing Drugs
Pulls back the curtain on the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry to expose the insidious ways that illness is used, manipulated, and in some instances created, for capital gain. Focusing on the industry’s marketing practices, media scholars and health professionals help viewers understand the ways in which direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical advertising glamorizes and normalizes the use of prescription medication.
04. American Hardcore
The history of hardcore punk–the tougher, faster, and more politically minded stepchild of the ’70s punk movement that arose in the ’80s–is examined in exuberant detail in Paul Rachman’s documentary.
03. Big Brother, Big Business
Every day technologies are being used to monitor Americans with unprecedented scrutiny – from driving habits to workplace surveillance. Shoppers and diners are observed and analyzed; Internet searches are monitored and used as evidence in court. It is big business that collects most of the data about us. But increasingly, it’s the government that’s using it.
02. Totally Bill Hicks
A celebration of the comedy of Bill Hicks. The film is structured around the different strains of comedy in the Hicks stand-up, sampling the best of his confrontational performance.
01. American Drug War: The Last White Hope
35 years after Nixon started the war on drugs, we have over one million non-violent drug offenders living behind bars. The War on Drugs has become the longest and most costly war in American history, the question has become, how much more can the country endure?


Let me know if you liked or disliked any of these. I don't know how often I'll do this. I have no affiliation to the site, but I sure do enjoy the hell out of it.

peace

The United States of Inequality

By Timothy Noah - Slate.com



Part One: Introducing the Great Divergence

In 1915, a statistician at the University of Wisconsin named Willford I. King published The Wealth and Income of the People of the United States, the most comprehensive study of its kind to date. The United States was displacing Great Britain as the world's wealthiest nation, but detailed information about its economy was not yet readily available; the federal government wouldn't start collecting such data in any systematic way until the 1930s. One of King's purposes was to reassure the public that all Americans were sharing in the country's new found wealth. King was somewhat troubled to find that the richest 1 percent possessed about 15 percent of the nation's income. (A more authoritative subsequent calculation puts the figure slightly higher, at about 18 percent.1)

This was the era in which the accumulated wealth of America's richest families—the
Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies—helped prompt creation of the modern income tax, lest disparities in wealth turn the United States into a European-style aristocracy. The socialist movement was at its historic peak, a wave of anarchist bombings was terrorizing the nation's industrialists, and President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, Alexander Palmer, would soon stage brutal raids on radicals of every stripe. In American history, there has never been a time when class warfare seemed more imminent.

That was when the richest 1 percent accounted for 18 percent of the nation's income. Today, the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation's income. What caused this to happen? To answer that question, look at all potential explanations—race, gender, the computer revolution, immigration, trade, government policies, the decline of labor, compensation policies on Wall Street and in executive suites, and education. Then an explanation  why people who say 'we don't need to worry about income inequality' are wrong.

Income inequality in the United States has not worsened steadily since 1915. It dropped a bit in the late teens, then started climbing again in the 1920s, reaching its peak just before the 1929 crash. The trend then reversed itself. Incomes started to become more equal in the 1930s and then became dramatically more equal in the 1940s.2 Income distribution remained roughly stable through the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Economic historians Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo have termed this mid-century era the "Great Compression." The deep nostalgia for that period felt by the World War II generation—the era of Life magazine and the bowling league—reflects something more than mere sentimentality. Assuming you were white, not of draft age, and Christian, there probably was no better time to belong to America's middle class.

The Great Compression ended in the 1970s. Wages stagnated, inflation raged, and by the decade's end, income inequality had started to rise. Income inequality grew through the 1980s,slackened briefly at the end of the 1990s, and then resumed with a vengeance in the aughts. In his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, the Nobel laureate, Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman labeled the post-1979 epoch the "Great Divergence."

It's generally understood that we live in a time of growing income inequality, but "the ordinary person is not really aware of how big it is," Krugman told me. During the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the United States experienced two unprecedentedly long periods of sustained economic growth—the "seven fat years" and the " long boom." Yet from 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1 percent. Economic growth was more sluggish in the aughts, but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20 percent. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their heads.

Here is a snapshot of income distribution during the past 100 years:


Why don't Americans pay more attention to growing income disparity? One reason may be our enduring belief in social mobility. Economic inequality is less troubling if you live in a country where any child, no matter how humble his or her origins, can grow up to be president. In a survey of 27 nations conducted from 1998 to 2001, the country where the highest proportion agreed with the statement "people are rewarded for intelligence and skill" was, of course, the United States (69 percent). But when it comes to real as opposed to imagined social mobility, surveys find less in the United States than in much of (what we consider) the class-bound Old World. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spain—not to mention some newer nations like Canada and Australia—are all places where your chances of rising from the bottom are better than they are in the land of Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick.

All my life I've heard Latin America described as a failed society (or collection of failed societies) because of its grotesque mal-distribution of wealth. Peasants in rags beg for food outside the high walls of opulent villas, and so on. But according to the Central Intelligence Agency (whose patriotism I hesitate to question), income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador. Income inequality is actually declining in Latin America even as it continues to increase in the United States. Economically speaking, the richest nation on earth is starting to resemble a banana republic. The main difference is that the United States is big enough to maintain geographic distance between the villa-dweller and the beggar. As Ralston Thorpe tells his St. Paul's classmate, the investment banker Sherman McCoy, in Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities: "You've got to insulate, insulate, insulate."

In 1915, King wrote, "It is easy to find a man in almost any line of employment who is twice as efficient as another employee,"
but it is very rare to find one who is ten times as efficient. It is common, however, to see one man possessing not ten times but a thousand times the wealth of his neighbor. … Is the middle class doomed to extinction and shall we soon find the handful of plutocrats, the modern barons of wealth, lined up squarely in opposition to the property-less masses with no buffer between to lessen the chances of open battle? With the middle class gone and the laborer condemned to remain a lifelong wage-earner with no hope of attaining wealth or even a competence in his old age, all the conditions are ripe for a crowning class-conflict equaling in intensity and bitterness anything pictured by the most radical follower of Karl Marx. Is this condition soon coming to pass? [emphasis his]
In the end, King concluded it wasn't. Income distribution in the United States, he found, was more equal than in Prussia, France, and the United Kingdom. King was no socialist. Redistributing income to the poor, he wrote, "would merely mean more rapid multiplication of the lowest and least desirable classes," who remained, "from the reproductive standpoint, on the low point of their four-footed ancestors." A Malthusian, he believed in population control. Income inequality in the United States could be addressed by limiting immigration (King deplored "low-standard alien invaders") and by discouraging excessive breeding among the poor ("eugenicists are just beginning to impress upon us the absurd folly of breeding great troops of paupers, defectives and criminals to be a burden upon organized society").

Today, incomes in the U.S. are more unequal than in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, not less so. Eugenics (thankfully) has fallen out of fashion, and the immigration debate has become (somewhat) more polite. As for income inequality, it's barely entered the national political debate. Indeed, the evidence from the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections suggests that even mild economic populism was a loser for Democrats.

But income inequality is a topic of huge importance to American society and therefore a subject of large and growing interest to a host of economists, political scientists, and other wonky types. Except for a few Libertarian outliers (whose views we'll examine later), these experts agree that the country's growing income inequality is deeply worrying. Even Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Board chairman and onetime Ayn Rand acolyte, has registered concern. "This is not the type of thing which a democratic society—a capitalist democratic society—can really accept without addressing," Greenspan said in 2005. Greenspan's Republican-appointed successor, Ben Bernanke, has also fretted about income inequality.

Yet few of these experts have much idea how to reverse the trend. That's because almost no one can agree about what's causing it. In the following sections, I will detail and weigh the strengths and weaknesses of various prominent theories as to what has brought about the income inequality boom of the last three decades. At the same time, I'll try to convey the magnitude of its effects on American life. The Great Divergence may represent the most significant change in American society in your lifetime—and it's not a change for the better. Let's see if we can figure out what got us here.


(this is a 40 page article that is available by PDF at this link. The following are the subject headers for each part of the series.)

Part One: Introducing the Great Divergence

Part Two: The usual suspects are innocent


Part Three: Did immigration create the Great Divergence?


Part Four: Did computers create inequality?


Part Five: Can we blame income inequality on Republicans?


Part Six: The Great Divergence and the death of organized labor.


Part Seven: Trade didn’t create inequality, and then it did.


Part Eight: The Stinking Rich and the Great Divergence


Part Nine: How the decline in K-12 education enriches college graduates.


Part Ten: Why We Can’t Ignore Growing Income Inequality.

Rocky Times Ahead: Are You Ready?

by Sarah Byrnes and Chuck Collins
"I don't believe the economy is getting better," says Billy R., a member of a mutual aid group in Oregon that he jokingly calls "my reality support group." "All around me I'm surrounded by media and advertising urging me to keep borrowing, buying, and sleepwalking. I love meeting with others who are staring down the potential risks and challenges of the future."

Maybe more of us could use a reality support group.

Even with the announcement that the bogus official unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent, millions of people remain in dismal economic straits. The pace of home foreclosures has barely slowed and millions remain out of work. Even upbeat scenarios still assume protracted unemployment and economic stagnation for much of the decade ahead. The unspoken scenario is that things could get worse.

Can forming a small group like this really make a difference, when the problems we face seem so overwhelming? History tells us they can.

So here's the point: you must not face the future alone. Find your own "reality support group" (we'll tell you how below). This year, make a resolution to deepen your relationships with people around you with whom you can face what's coming down the pike.

Sometime during the next couple of years, there will likely be a fundamental shift. It might be another economic meltdown along the lines of 2008, or a shock to the economy thanks to a rapid spike in energy costs. It could be a series of extreme weather events that result in flooding, drought, or unprecedented heat waves. Think Hurricane Katrina on a larger scale. These changes could lead to food and water shortages-and test our personal and community preparedness in ways that we have not experienced in our lifetimes.

You should know that we, the authors of this piece, are not apocalyptic, bunker-building, pessimistic people. We're both parents, gardeners, and active in our neighborhoods. We like a good football party-though we root for different teams (Patriots v. Steelers).

We believe our society has almost everything we need to build stronger communities, reduce inequality, live in harmony with the earth, and make a graceful transition to a new sustainable economy. But we won't get there ignoring the data, and we won't get there disconnected from one another.

We're not talking about yet another issue campaign. We certainly need to remain engaged in the good fights around economic justice, peace, democracy, the environment. But there is something huge missing right now in our approach to social change. Our social movements are weak and, with some inspiring exceptions, not changing the political dynamics. The "Net Roots"-online organizing and social media-are creative ways to aggregate money and power in specific situations, but online activism is not a substitute for a movement based on durable and trusting face-to-face relationships. In some religious and labor traditions, this is called solidarity.

Fearful, Alone, & Ashamed

Presently in the United States we are witnessing the emergence of politics based on fear and the erosion of status. Millions of people saw their livelihoods and dreams collapse in the aftermath of the economic meltdown. People lost their homes, jobs, savings, and sense of a positive future. They've had to adjust their expectations-for example, facing the reality that they may never be able to retire or improve their standard of living.

Some people respond to these circumstances by blaming themselves and feeling ashamed about their difficulties. Many are hunkering down, feeling depressed and withdrawn. In the U.S., we tend to think everything is about the individual-even blaming ourselves for things that are largely beyond our control.

Others of us respond by scapegoating others, often those more disadvantaged. These responses often come from a place of fear, isolation, and shame.

There is good reason to be angry and focus on powerful financial and political actors who are responsible. But, as in the grieving process, we must move from anger to a place where we can boldly face today's difficult realities and also initiate pro-active responses. We can start by learning to accept and live within new limits set by economic and ecological reality. Many people are already deliberately moving away from the old economy, and they're finding new types of security and abundance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they often feel much richer than they did in lives defined by the "work-watch-spend" cycle.

Rebecca Solnit, in her remarkable book A Paradise Built In Hell, reminds us to look for the "shadow governments of kindness," the deep reservoirs of resilience and compassion that emerge during disasters and troubled times. All over the planet, people are defying the stereotypes of the self-centered "economic man" and instead caring for one another, building alternative economies, and deepening solidarity.


A Movement to Build Economic Security


The good news is people are already coming together in small groups to form and strengthen relationships. Some are called "common security clubs," while others go by names like "mutual aid groups," "resilience circles," and "unemployed support groups."

Call it what you want, but the purpose is the same: getting together regularly-8 to 15 adults-to face ecological and economic change. Small group organizing is part of the missing architecture in our social movements ... which may be why it's catching on so quickly.

Such groups are designed to strengthen our personal and community resilience. They typically have three purposes: to learn together, support one another through mutual aid, and engage in social action.

Learn together. It's hard enough for each of us alone to keep up with news about the ways our changing economy and ecology are impacting our lives. But it's particularly challenging to face unsettling realities in isolation. In order to move forward, we need a community to help us learn and figure out how to deal with our fear, anger, loss, and feelings of betrayal.

Group members watch videos, read articles, talk to each other, and organize forums. Since the "experts" mostly got things wrong two years ago, participants are investigating things for themselves. What's really happening in the economy? What caused the economic meltdown? What's changed? What are the ecological risk points? How will the decline of cheap, easy-to-get oil affect the future economy? What will a transition to a new economy look like?

Mutual Aid. Our mutual aid muscles are out of shape. We need to find ways to increase our real economic security and web of support through shared resources, skills, experience, and capacities. Some folks do this through extended families, religious congregations, and ethnic and fraternal associations. But millions of people are disconnected from extended family and the immigrant and civic associations that helped earlier generations survive. And many religious congregations have gotten out of the practice of being centers of mutual aid.

Common security clubs often gather around potlucks, sharing food and recipes for healthy, low-cost meals. They support one another to get out of debt, brainstorm about employment options, share tips on saving money. They form bartering circles to swap skills, tools, and time. They talk about the challenges of parents moving in with children, children moving in with parents-and adjusting to new norms and limits as a result of the changing economy and future.

Social Action. Many of us want to make meaningful change at the local and national level. We want to find ways to constructively channel our anger and fear to resist further Wall Street destruction of our local economies. We want to act together in ways that go beyond online petitions or phone calls to our member of Congress. Think "affinity group" or "social action group"-a place to deepen our effectiveness as a small unit, but be part of larger movements.

Common security clubs in particular have worked for national policy changes, from universal health care and Wall Street financial reform to the extension of unemployment benefits. Many clubs, animated by the "break up with your bank" and "move your money" efforts, relocated personal, congregational, and other funds out of Wall Street, and into community banks and credit unions.

Other clubs have connected with community-wide "transition" efforts, inspired by the Transition Town movement sweeping England and now moving U.S. communities into action. Transition neighborhoods and towns proactively prepare themselves for climate change, economic hardship, and the decline in easy-to-get oil and cheap energy-with its huge implications for transportation, food security, building design, and our standard of living. Within the broader initiatives, small personal groups like common security clubs provide a place where people can meet to practice mutual aid and reciprocity. Both transition towns and common security clubs are integral components of building needed personal and community resilience.


A Few Stories

Encouraging stories are emerging from common security clubs and other mutual aid groups.
A group of unemployed workers in Maine created a resource sharing exchange. They met regularly at the library and laughed so much the librarian didn't believe they were economically struggling.

A group in Greenfield, Massachusetts calls themselves "the neighbors" and meets monthly to check in, sing together, and practice mutual aid. On another night they meet for a monthly game night-what one member called "fun and affordable entertainment."

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a network of Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers meets weekly and has formed committees to help educate one another about computer use, unemployment insurance, stress management in tough times, and green job opportunities. "Part of our work is to help face the unemployment bureaucracy so people get their benefits," said Tom Lewandowski, a founder of the group. They invite people leaving unemployment offices to join the group. Members volunteer at libraries on Sunday afternoons to help unemployed workers file claims online.


Small Groups in Social Movements

Can forming a small group like this really make a difference, when the problems we face seem so overwhelming? History tells us they can. At many crucial moments in our past, small groups have played an essential role in incubating the seeds of great change.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, more than 27,000 "Share Our Wealth" clubs formed to discuss the causes of the Depression and advocate for a radical program of wealth redistribution.

Also in the 1930s, seniors organized "Townsend Clubs" to advocate for old age pensions-a formidable social movement that added to the pressure to establish Social Security. By 1936, more than 8,000 Townsend Clubs had been formed with over 2 million members. In ten states-including Oregon, Colorado, California, Florida, South Dakota-there were more than 50 clubs per congressional district.

In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, people formed nonviolent direct action groups to engage in sit-ins and keep up morale. Activists rooted in faith-based congregations and tight-knit communities were able to take greater risks knowing that if they should be jailed (or worse), there were others to care for their children and elders.

The women's movement was built upon small consciousness-raising groups, which enabled millions of women to reflect on their identity. "The personal is political" was experienced in thousands of face-to-face gatherings, ultimately shifting gender attitudes throughout the society. The anti-nuclear movement in the late 1970s formed "affinity groups" as part of direct action efforts to prevent power plants from being built.

In the labor movement, the success of organizing female clerical workers into trade unions depended upon an organizing approach that included small support groups. Large mega-churches have grown upon a foundation of "small group ministry" in which members connect through smaller, face-to-face groups. A growing number of organizers today are examining the "power of networks" in social movements.

Given the challenges we're collectively facing in the present, where are such movements today? It appears that without a lived experience of "solidarity" in our personal lives, it can be difficult to respond to an abstract call for the common good. It may be that small group organizing is central to our hopes for broad-based change.


Potential Shock Points

There is good reason to believe that the next 10 years are going to be very different than the 10 years prior to the 2008 economic meltdown. Persistent unemployment means that millions of people may live out the decade in an economic depression.

Moreover, the underlying economic structures that brought on the collapse have not been addressed. We remain at risk for more financial nosedives. As a result, new Wall Street economic bubbles and busts may emerge. The "danger" light on the dashboard is still flashing...
In fact, the future could bring any number of "shock points": another economic meltdown along the lines of 2008; a further increase in unemployment, even to 20 percent; more extreme weather events (hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves); new spikes in the cost of energy; rapid deflation as the value of money falls; a dramatic increase in the cost of food; and/or shortages of fresh water.

Because of the extreme inequalities of income and wealth that have opened up over the last generation, the brunt of these changes is falling, and will continue to fall, most intensely on lower and middle income and disadvantaged folks. But these changes will touch everyone in various ways, even those who believe they have built a wall of economic security around their families.
These are some of the reasons people need to face the future together and strengthen the social fabric of our communities. This is not a future you can, or should, face alone.

The Transition to the New Economy

Eight million jobs in the old economy are not coming back. But new jobs, enterprises, and livelihoods are emerging. We are seeing vibrant new kinds of enterprises in the local food sector, green building, and alternative transportation, as well as locally rooted cooperatives and producers. These are the pieces of a new economy that is emerging piecemeal around the country-an economy based upon entirely different models of economic growth and indicators of community health, and also new conceptions of wealth, community, and governance.

This new economy includes financial institutions invested in the real economy, like community banks and credit unions walled off from the Wall Street speculation that adds no real value to our economy. It includes respect for "all that we share"-our commons of public and private institutions such as libraries, schools, or agricultural knowledge. It is based on sound management and protection of the gifts of nature including water systems, seed banks, and land conservancies.

In the current political moment, leadership for large-scale transition to this new economy will not come from Washington, D.C., but from movements around green jobs, local manufacturing, alternative transportation, regional food, and more. This is a moment for each of us to reflect on our own power and agency. We each have a role to play, but perhaps we aren't sure what it is yet. This is where your small group is important. Small groups help disconnected individuals find their roles, turning them into community players who contribute to the movements toward the new economy.

If we are prepared for a transition, we will be in much better shape than if we simply hope life will somehow return to normal. If we have our "core group," we can face changes with less fear and more sense of our personal agency. Together, we will be able to work toward an economy that works for everyone.

How to Start a
Common Security Club



Calling All Organizers! Does this idea of a small support group appeal to you? Is it a missing part of your organizing work? Would it benefit your community, or your own life? Check out the resources provided by the Common Security Club network to help you organize a group.

Calling All Facilitators! Are you good at getting people together and holding a respectful space? If you’ve ever successfully facilitated a small group, you can facilitate a Common Security Club. You don’t need to be an expert on these matters, just good with people. There is a network that provides a free downloadable Facilitator Guide chock full of ideas for discussion, learning, sharing, mutual aid, and social action. The network provides facilitation tips, conference calls, and ongoing support.

Visit www.commonsecurityclub.org to learn more.

No Fracking Way to Balance a State Budget

Friday, January 21, 2011 by The Progressive
by Elizabeth DiNovella

More than half of all states are getting a new governor this year, making this incoming class one of the largest in American history. The Republicans made huge gains in the states, with 18 new GOP governors taking office.

The Midwest took an especially hard hit, as most Great Lakes states now have Republicans in their governor's mansions.

But in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the new GOP govs are being greeted with protests.

Here in Madison, a few hundred people demonstrated outside the Wisconsin State Capitol on January 3, the day Gov. Scott Walker took office. Walker has created a stir by threatening to cut wages and benefits for state workers, and has even suggested eliminating collective bargaining rights for them.

The Defend Ohio campaign marched at Gov. John Kasich's inauguration on Saturday, January 8, in Columbus. Kasich, a former investment banker who ran under the tea party label, is considering leasing the Ohio Turnpike to a private company, hiring a private company to run the state's prisons, and limiting the ability of state and local workers to bargain collectively. (In a poll released this week, all of these ideas lacked support among voters.)

They chanted "No fracking way" at Gov. Tom Corbett in Harrisburg. More than 300 hundred people protested at the Pennsylvania governor's inauguration against hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas industry on Tuesday, January 18.

And the Moratorium Now Coalition held a demonstration at the Michigan State Capitol steps during Gov. Rick Snyder's first State of the State address on January 19.

These four states, like so many others, are facing huge budget shortfalls. (According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states face a collective shortfall of $72 billion for the next fiscal year.)

These new govs have made it clear that they intend to cut wages and benefits for public workers, privatize state functions, and slash funds for schools and social services. They say it's to resolve the financial mess, but the budget crises give the GOP a new way to market its pro-privatization and anti-union agenda.

Happy Birthday, Citizens United! (2 articles)

Huffington Post 
by Jamin Raskin
 
Happy Birthday, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission!
You're one year old today, big boy. But just think of all the fine things you've done already:
  • Simply by being polite and treating corporations like other people, you wrecked the McCain-Feingold legislation.
  • You made it possible for outside groups and big businesses to spend almost $300 million for their favorite candidates in the 2010 congressional elections, driving total campaign costs up over $4 billion.
  • At a delicate moment for "corporate Americans," you put them right back in the driver's seat. After the multi-trillion dollar sub-prime mortgage meltdown on Wall Street, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and Massey Coal's lethal mine collapse in West Virginia, Americans were asking kind of tough questions about whether unregulated corporate power is serving the common good. You gave corporations the political edge they needed not just to survive but to rule!
  • Best of all, as a Supreme Court decision, you not only bulldozed major precedents and performed awesome doctrinal pirouettes, but you did it with a 5-4 vote. Like your doting big brother, Bush v. Gore, who was also conceived by "Justices United"--five Justices named by presidents of only one political party--you are rewriting the rules of American politics on a completely partisan basis. (Bush v. Gore decided the winner in only one election and promised he would dare not get involved in others You've already changed the rules in all of them--and you can't even vote yet, kiddo!)
But I don't want to make it seem like your life has been perfect, Citizens. You've taken some hard knocks for an infant Supreme Court decision.

At his State of the Union Address last year, the president called you out in front of the whole Congress and country, saying you had opened "the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign companies -- to spend without limit in our elections." You weren't even a month old!
Thank God Justice Alito was there to stand up for you.

But, still, you were rejected from the start by 80% of the American people, who think treating corporation like rights-bearing citizens of the democracy is ridiculous. Real citizens do seem to be united -- against you. As Justice Stevens wrote in his dissenting opinion, your existence is "a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt."

But now is no time to despair, Citizens.

Now is the time to look forward to placing your next mark on the world. Oh, the places you'll go, Citizens United!

What will be next?
  • Do you want to wipe out the ban on federal corporate contributions that has been in place since 1907? This should be a piece of cake. If a corporation is like any other group of citizens organized to participate in politics for the purpose of expenditures, why not contributions too?
  • Do you want to eliminate restrictions on political campaigning and endorsements from the pulpit by ministers and other clerics in houses of worship?
Right now, the prohibition on campaigning by 501c(3) groups is justified only by virtue of their tax exemption. By taking a special tax-free status, nonprofit groups including churches agree to follow clear rules about political involvement

But you made this justification obsolete when you ruled that corporations could not be kept out of politics simply because they enjoy important benefits from the government like perpetual life, limited liability for shareholders, and preferred tax treatment and public subsidies.

You found that for-profit and not-for-profit corporations should be treated alike for political purposes. And neither for-profit nor non-profit corporations can be kept from spending in elections just because we subsidize them.

Lord knows there are a huge number of ministers already actively violating the ban in hopes of becoming the great next case testing how far Justice Kennedy is willing to take you.

Perhaps you want to move in another direction and establish the right of municipal corporations, states and federal government agencies, like the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security, to spend and give money in political campaigns too.

Justice Kennedy adopted the position that the "identity of the speaker" is irrelevant as long as political speech is taking place.

Sure, some people will say that this will usher in the age of Big Brother when government tells us who to vote for. But we will tell them that the Fortune 500 companies that you endowed with these rights are much wealthier and more powerful than most cities, states and federal agencies so there can't be anything to worry about. And which governments will dare to support any candidate that the companies aren't backing anyway? When government can finally join corporations in telling us who to vote for, it won't be a conflict of interest, it will be a convergence of interest.

I know some of these situations seem unlikely, but remember, Citizens United, when you came to the Supreme Court, you were focused on a specific technical question about pay-per-view videos about political candidates. That didn't stop you from turning the world upside down!
Citizens, I don't mean to stress you out too much on your special day, so let me leave you with some sweet words from Oh, the Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss:
"You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You're on your own and you know what you know and YOU are the one who'll decide where to go . . ."
Oh, and if you get a minute after the big party is over tonight, you might check out this long-forgotten passage from Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle, which is a lot of fun too:
"I know, up on top you are seeing great sights. But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights."

***

Friday, January 21, 2011 by The Nation
"Legalize Democracy!" Demand Activists Rallying Nationwide to Overturn Lawless Citizens United Ruling

by John Nichols

"The greatest political reform of our time will be to abolish the legal concept of 'corporate personhood' and the inherently anti-democratic equation of money with political speech,” says Bill Moyer, the energetic founder and executive director of the Backbone Campaign, the grassroots movement to embolden Americans to push back against corporate power and political corruption.

Across the country Friday, that debate was opening up.

Pushing back against an activist U.S. Supreme Court that has given corporations carte blanche to warp not just our politics but the republic itself, grassroots reformers and activists have used the one-year anniversary of the court’s lawless decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case to argue that democracy itself is endangered when corporations are allowed spend without limitation or accountability to influence elections.

The Citizens United ruling eliminated century-old restrictions on corporate spending to support favored candidates and to oppose those who might side with consumers, environmentalists, labor unions and communities.

The corporations recognized the opening given them by the hyper-partisan majority on the high court and seized it.

“The outrageous, misguided and illogical Citizens United decision has empowered corporations and endangered our democracy. Secretive corporate and billionaire donors exerted an outsized influence over Election 2010,” explains Public Citizen executive director Robert Weissman. “Their spending now casts a pall over all lawmaking, because any members of Congress who challenge corporate interests know they now risk facing a barrage of attack ads in the next election. And all parties agree that 2010 was just a warm-up for 2012. This is no way to run a democracy. That's why a growing movement is working for passage of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.”

That movement was making itself heard Friday in dozens of cities and towns across the country, from a “Rally to Legalize Democracy” in Kent, Washington, to a “Wake for Democracy” in Madison, Wisconsin, to a “Get Corporations Out of Politics” gathering on the village green in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

In Washington, a “For the People” Summit coordinated by Moyer and supported by a cross-section of reform groups – including the Alliance for Democracy, American Independent Business Alliance, Backbone Campaign, Center for Media and Democracy, Changing the Game, Code Pink, Coffee Party USA, Common Cause, Democracy Matters, Democrats.com, Fix Congress First, Free Speech For People, MoveOn, Move to Amend, PeaceMajority Report, People for the American Way, Progressive Democrats of America, Public Citizen, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom – heard Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig and leaders of the movement to amend the Constitution in order to renew the founding faith that free speech in a human right that must be shouted down by corporate spending.

John Bonifaz, co-founder and director of Free Speech For People campaign, told activists: “Free speech and other constitutional rights are for people, not corporations. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United will go down in history as contrary to the constitutional principles set forth by the Framers establishing a government of, for, and by the people. On this one-year anniversary of the ruling, we must renew our commitment to fighting for a 28th amendment to the Constitution that ensures that people, not corporations, govern in America ,” said John Bonifaz, co-founder and director of Free Speech For People.

That message was echoed by Lisa Graves, a former deputy Assistant Attorney General and top aide to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“A year ago, we warned that the Roberts Court was wrong to ‘celebrate’ expanding the power of corporations in our elections and policymaking,” says Graves, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy and a key player in the Move to Amend campaign. “The unparalleled spending by Wall Street in this past election has proven the validity of our fears of the power of their money to spin the issues and distort our democracy and that's why nearly a million Americans have signed petitions against the Supreme Court's terrible decision and millions more will join us in this fight the coming years.”

That broad grassroots support, in combination with the organizing that is going on nationwide, gives Moyer confidence that, despite the difficulty of amending the Constitution, and despite the even greater difficulty of holding corporations to account, this is a movement that – one year after the Citizens United ruling – is emerging as a powerful and effective force for change.

The task that lies ahead is, indeed, “monumental.” But, says Moyer, “I believe… it can be achieved in the coming years built on a foundation of community-based battles to return power to the People.”

Why Is the Treasury Not Releasing Data on Who’s Getting Loans?


by Ngoc Nguyen

At the end of this month, for the first time ever, the US Treasury plans to release to the public a treasure trove of demographic information on people who have received loan modifications. That is, if the government releases the information as promised – information that has a critical impact on policies that prevent home foreclosures.

So far, the Treasury has stalled on making this key information available, despite requests by housing and consumer advocacy groups and media organizations, including New America Media, under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Loan modifications are changes made to the terms of a home loan and could include such things as being granted a different interest rate, a principal reduction, or a decrease in how often the loan must be paid off.
Housing advocates say they have been waiting for the Treasury to the release the information for more than a year.

National Consumer Law Center attorney Geoffry Walsh, whose organization filed a FOIA at the end of 2009, says the Treasury still hasn’t provided the information. Walsh says his group requested data detailing why borrowers were denied loan modifications.

“There were promises from the FOIA people that they would be sending [the data]…and that just went on and on for months,” he said. “They sent a few relevant things, but nothing substantial pertaining to what we asked for.”

New America Media first asked the Treasury for race and ethnicity data of those who received loan modifications under President Obama’s Home Affordability Modification Program (HAMP) last September. A Treasury spokesperson said the information would be released at the end of October. The release date was then pushed back to November. New America Media submitted a FOIA request last November, and is still waiting for the requested data. The Treasury now promises to release the data by the end of the month.

“Any delay in publishing the file is to ensure all proper precautions have been taken to protect homeowner privacy - our utmost concern,” Treasury spokesperson Andrea Risotto, said in an emailed reply to New America Media.

For housing advocates, the delay means not having access to critical data that could shed light on who’s getting loan modifications, which has been the key policy for preventing foreclosures, according to Kevin Stein, associate director of the San Francisco-based California Reinvestment Coalition.

The number of foreclosures nationally continues to rise and Stein believes they could reach 12 million by 2013.

“Many people will still need help,” Stein says, “and [loan modifications are] still the main way people will get help.” But, there’s little public information about who is getting the loan modifications and the terms of the deal, “except [what is] in the hands of the banks.”

According to Stein, in much the same way that demographic information on lending has revealed racial disparities, the HAMP data could be used to ensure fair housing laws are not being violated. The HAMP data has limitations though, as 80 percent of loan medications occur outside of the program, Stein said, citing figures by bank regulators.

Walsh of the National Consumer Law Center says his organization was denied a request for information about a calculator that loan servicers use to determine who qualifies for a loan modification. The calculator, referred to as a net present value (NPV) calculator, takes inputs such as the borrower’s income, property value, length of time behind on payments, credit score, and modification amount and “shows if the investor would do better under the loan modification or by foreclosing,” Walsh said.

The request was denied on the grounds that it was proprietary information. “Basically, they said it belongs to Fannie Mae and private businesses,” Walsh said. “We don’t agree with that.” The group appealed the decision, but the appeal was also denied. “Under HAMP rules, if the NPV test shows that the loan modification is the better option, the servicer has to do the loan modification, they can’t foreclose,” he added.

Homeowners have expressed frustration with the lack of transparency on the part of the bank, while trying to modify home loans with their lenders. Walsh says at least two changes set to begin next month will offer homeowners more transparency about their loan modification process.

As a part of the Wall Street Reform Act of 2010, banks will be required to list the figures that they used in the NPV calculator in denial letters to homeowners. In addition, Walsh says, the Treasury has said it will make the calculators available in the spring. That too, remains to be seen.

Financial Socialism by and for Wall Street Elites?

Friday, January 21, 2011 by Huffington Post
by Les Leopold
More than 70 percent of Americans say big bonuses should be banned this year at Wall Street firms that took taxpayer bailouts, a Bloomberg National Poll shows.

An additional one in six favors slapping a 50 percent tax on bonuses exceeding $400,000. Just 7 percent of U.S. adults say bonuses are an appropriate incentive reflecting Wall Street's return to financial health.

A large majority also want to tax Wall Street profits to reduce the federal budget deficit. A levy on financial services firms is the top choice among more than a dozen deficit-cutting options presented to respondents. --Bloomberg
As bonus season arrives, the gap between the American people and Wall Street couldn't be wider. And where is Washington in this great divide? Don't ask.

At a moment when Americans desperately want jobs on Main Street and expect Wall Street to pay its fair share, Washington officials are hard at work -- seeking jobs for themselves on Wall Street. (Congratulations, Peter Orszag, on parlaying your position as Obama's OMB director into a top job at CitiGroup, the bank that received hundreds of billions in taxpayer bailouts and guarantees on your watch!)

Most Americans rightly sense that our mixed free-enterprise economy, which once built a broad middle class, has devolved into a system of financial socialism by and for elites. The public wants and deserves answers to these basic questions:
1. Why do people in the financial sector make so much more money than the rest of us? Mainstream economists claim that your income reflects the economic value you produce -- at least in free and open markets. But are proprietary traders, for example, really 100 times more valuable than neurosurgeons? In the UK, some economists say no: The British New Economics Foundation calculates that "While collecting salaries of between £500,000 and £10 million, leading City bankers destroy £7 of social value for every pound in value they generate."
Let's try a back-of-the envelope calculation of Wall Street's net social value. Compare their bonuses and profits for roughly the last five years (about $500 billion) with the economic losses produced in the financial crisis the bankers caused (about $4 trillion in value destroyed, not counting the ongoing travails of the 22 million people who haven't yet been able to find a full-time job). For every dollar "earned" on Wall Street, about 8 dollars were destroyed. (In case you're suffering from financial amnesia and forgot how the financial sector single-handedly caused the economic crisis, please see The Looting of America. Chapter One can be found gratis on Alternet.com.)

There's plenty of room for argument about this kind of calculation. But even Wall Street wizards would have trouble defending the billions they've acquired by profiting from a bubble that blew up the economy. What's the real value of junk CDOs that were rated AAA and then sold for enormous profits before they blew up? We could make a strong case that those who profited from such bubble investments - like the people who sold synthetic CDOs to Wisconsin school districts -- should pay back their fraudulent profits. (In fact, the school districts have filed a lawsuit toward that end.)
2. Do current profits of financial firms come from tax-payer bailouts?
The old free-market mantra was that you could make as much as you wanted, so long as you were willing to accept all the risks that went with it. Joseph Schumpeter, a great defender of capitalism during the 1940s when much of the world was turning towards socialism, called the process of winning and losing "creative destruction." In his vision of capitalism, the best and the brightest staked everything in their quest for success, and only the true innovators survived. Inefficient enterprises would be left by the wayside.
So... are the survivors of the economic collapse like CitiGroup, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, receiving their just rewards?

Actually, it sounds a bit quaint these days to suggest that the rich must actually suffer the consequences of failure. These top financial institutions did not have to pay for their reckless gambling and gaming because they were deemed to big too fail, and so were bailed out. Goldman Sachs, for example, made a very bad bet when it purchased $13 billion of financial "insurance" from AIG to cover its toxic assets. AIG, due to its own enormously bad business decisions, could not pay up and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Had it gone under, as Schumpeter probably would have urged, Goldman Sachs would have received pennies on the dollar for its bad gamble, and might have gone broke. Instead, AIG was bailed out by taxpayers and Goldman Sachs got 100 cents on the dollar. It gambled, lost, and instead of suffering the consequences, was made whole by the government. And now Goldman Sachs execs are hauling in tens of millions in bonuses (disguised as stock options, even as its profits slip a bit from astronomical highs.)

Clearly, the "free and open" market did not determine who should be spared "creative destruction." Instead, CitiGroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase et al were saved because of their deep political connections. These companies would be kaput were it not for taxpayer bailouts, hastily contrived loans, and all kinds of market guarantees from their friends at the Fed. Schumpeter would have recognized this scheme in a flash: It's precisely the kind of crony socialism that he detested, only this time the game was was designed by and for financial elites in the world's largest capitalist economy. (Please don't compare the Wall Street rescues to the GM and Chrysler bailouts. Wall Street received ten times as much and will pay themselves a hundred times more than the top auto-executives. And the auto industry didn't topple the US economy and send millions to the unemployment lines.)
3. But since Wall Street is paying us back, why shouldn't they go back to earning whatever they can? Let's follow through on that logic. Let's say you raid your husband's pension fund for $100,000 and take the bus to Vegas, naively hoping to triple your money. As luck would have it, you lose it all. Desperate, you manage to borrow another two million from a rich friend (Wall Street calls it "leverage") -- and then you really load up on your bets. Tragically, you lose that too. I hate to tell you this, but you're in big trouble now. Don't expect the government to come around and offer to cover your losses with taxpayer bailouts so you can keep on gambling till the lights go out, and then, if you win, pay back the government. That is, unless you're too big to fail -- say, a very large, well-connected investment bank. In that case, party on!
It's true, Wall Street has paid us back for much of the bailout money we gave them. That's the good news. The bad news is that, having been rewarded for their bad behavior, they're now back at the casino tables, playing many of the same games that took down the economy in the first place. This time there are even fewer players who are now way too big to fail. And fewer players means less competition -- hence the rise in banking "fees," especially for the average consumer.
4. Where does all their wealth come from? There are only two possible sources for all the money the financial sector is spewing: The bankers are either creating new wealth or they're siphoning off wealth from the rest of us. Hedge fund honchos like to boast about how they weren't bailed out and therefore are entitled to their enormous hauls. (The top 10 in 2009 earned an average of $900,000 an HOUR. The top 25 earned as much as 658,000 entry level teachers.)
But our noble hedge fund managers have a great deal of difficulty accounting for what I call their "paradox of productivity." You see, there's supposed to be a connection between the productivity of your employees and your profits. Apple Corporation, for example, earned about $6 billion in 2009 by expertly engaging its 35,000 employees. (They went on to earn $6 billion in the last quarter of 2010 alone.) Along the way they offered us an array of popular new products that people are enjoying and putting to use. Appaloosa, the hedge fund, earned about as much as Apple in 2009 by speculating on god knows what. But it has fewer than 250 employees and it's not at all clear what these individuals added to our economy -- certainly not the iPad. How can 250 workers, no matter how wise and talented, produce as much real worth speculating on stuff as 35,000 Apple employees can make inventing, manufacturing and marketing useful products? They can't. So hedge funds must be siphoning off wealth from elsewhere, not creating it themselves. (If you think I'm wrong, please prove otherwise, because I haven't found a single book or paper about hedge funds, even from insiders or academics, that explains this paradox of productivity.)

Ever since the crash, I've been calling for a ban on Wall Street bonuses and for new taxes on the financial sector. Though I felt like I was hollering in the wind, apparently most Americans agree (if we can believe the polls cited above). I naively thought that during the crash the government would come done hard on Wall Street as it did during the 1930s. I was wrong. Instead we have institutionalized a festering problem that allows Wall Street to continue siphoning off the nation's wealth. So we have to think about a more radical restructuring. I believe the only way to end financial socialism for elites is to turn the core of high finance into group of heavily regulated public utilities -- like power, water and electricity (not semi-private entities like Fannie and Freddie before they were nationalized).

Financial socialism for elites has failed and will fail again, plunging millions of Americans into joblessness and sinking our nation deeply into debt. Big government has many faults, of course. But the American people, I believe, can tell the difference between public utilities that aim to serve the economy and a private oligopoly that only serves a tiny elite. Ironically, those who run the government don't want government to end financial socialism (maybe because of financial industry campaign contributions--or because of Wall Street's inviting revolving door). It may take another crash before Washington is willing to listen.

Who Can Fight Off the Social Security Pillagers?

Friday, January 21, 2011 by FireDogLake.com
by Dean Baker

That is the question that supporters of Social Security should be asking as we brace for President Obama’s State of the Union address next week. Specifically, the question is whether Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid will keep up his spirited defense of Social Security or whether he will buckle to the pressure from the financial industry and the Washington insiders.

For those who missed it, Senator Reid distinguished himself by saying the obvious on one of the Sunday talk shows two weeks ago. He said that Social Security is not contributing to the deficit and that the shortfall it faces is still distant and relatively minor. He said he was tired of people picking on this program, which is vital to the financial security of tens of millions of retirees and disabled workers and their families.

Truth is rare in Washington, so Senator Reid’s comments really stood out. If the Senator is prepared to hold his ground, he can save the program.

There is no doubt that the forces arrayed against Social Security are enormously powerful. The wealthy hate the idea of government money going to anyone but them, and since the vast majority of Social Security benefits are going to low and middle-income families, the program is an outrage to their sensibilities.

The financial industry also knows a cash cow when they see one. It would take more than $10 trillion in private accounts to generate the same amount of money as Social Security pays out each year in benefits. If the financial industry collected just 1.0 percent of this sum in fees each year, it would mean another $100 billion a year into the coffers of the Merrill Lynch set.

And, for anti-government conservatives, Social Security is the worst nightmare imaginable: a government program that really works. Its administrative costs are less than one-tenth as high as they are for financial industry. There is minimal fraud and the program does exactly what it was supposed to do: provide a core retirement income and protect workers and their families against disability and early death.

For these reasons, it is inevitable that powerful forces would be looking to ax Social Security. Much of the media, led by the Washington Post (a.k.a. Fox on 15th Street), have abandoned rules of objectivity in their quest to paint Social Security as a basket case.

The most common tactic is to lump Social Security in with Medicare and Medicaid as “entitlements” that will break the budget. Of course, every budget expert knows that the vast majority of the projected increase in spending comes from Medicare and Medicaid due to exploding health care costs, not the modest impact that aging has on projected Social Security benefits.

Peter Peterson, everyone’s favorite Wall Street billionaire, has committed much of his fortune to gutting the program. He is buying everything in sight to advance this goal. This includes setting up a new foundation, paying for scary anti-Social Security documentaries, setting up a fake news service (the “Fiscal Times“), sponsoring rigged public forums (America Speaks), and even playing silly games on the mall.

Can Senator Reid stand up to this massive push?

Well, Mr. Reid has two things on his side: public opinion and the truth. As far as public opinion, there is no doubt that Social Security is a hugely popular program. Everyone loves the security that it provides them, their parents, or their grandparents, and their children. Its sky-high approval rating is across the board with all demographic groups and spans the political spectrum from progressive Democrats to Tea Party Republicans.

The truth is also on Reid’s side. One only has to read the Social Security Trustees Report to see that the program will be fully funded for the next 27 years even with no changes at all. After that date, it would still be able to pay almost 80 percent of scheduled benefits indefinitely, even if nothing were ever done. Furthermore, it is not difficult to find progressive ways to make up the remaining shortfall. Just raising the payroll tax cap to where the Greenspan commission set it in 1983 makes up more than one-fourth of the projected shortfall.

The fixes proposed by the Social Security cutters would involve real pain, some of it longer term and some of it very immediate. Most notable is their proposal to reduce the annual cost of living by 0.3 percentage points. After ten years, this would reduce retirees’ benefits by close to 3 percent, after twenty years the reduction would be 6 percent. This would be a big hit to many seniors who are surviving on less than $20,000 a year.

The longer-term plans call for making the program more “progressive.” This generally means cuts for people who earned $50,000 or $60,000 a year in their working lifetime. That’s better than the typical worker, but it doesn’t fit most people’s conception of rich.

What is so frustrating in this story is that we are not a poor country and are not getting poorer. There is plenty of money out there, if our politicians ever had the courage to confront the rich and powerful. We could easily raise more than $150 billion a year from taxing Wall Street with a financial speculation tax.

We could save as much on prescription drugs if we started having them sold in a competitive market and adopted a more efficient mechanism for financing drug research. And, we could have the Federal Reserve Board hold the bonds it is now buying so that taxpayers are not burdened with hundreds of billions a year in additional interest payments to the wealthy in future decades.

These are items that we would be discussing if the political system were not so dominated by moneyed interests. So, in this context does Senator Reid have a chance?

Actually he has a very good chance. There is an important precedent for Senator Reid’s defense of Social Security. In 1997, President Clinton had reached a deal with Trent Lott, then the majority leader in the Senate, to reduce the annual cost of living adjustment for Social Security. Their deal would have lowered the adjustment by about 1 percentage point annually. After 10 years this would mean that benefits would be almost 10 percent lower and after 20 years they would be close to 20 percent lower.

This plan might have gone through, except for the opposition of Richard Gephardt. At the time, Gephardt was the leader of the Democrats in the House. Even though the Democrats were a minority, everyone knew that if Gephardt spoke out forcefully against this deal, it would create too much political heat to carry it through.

This saved the day. As President Clinton said at one of the Peter Peterson deficit fests last spring: “I wanted to cut Social Security, but they wouldn’t let me.”

Let’s hope that Harry Reid and the American people also don’t let President Obama cut Social Security.

Court Sides With Big Oil

Chevron's Crude Attacks
By MICHAEL WINSHIP

Joe Berlinger's back is against the wall. Last week the independent filmmaker, already facing crushing debt from legal bills, was dealt a major blow in his continuing fight against the third largest company in America, Chevron.

It's a battle that epitomizes the hardship individuals face trying to challenge corporate giants that punch back with a knockout force of high-powered lawyers and unlimited cash.

What's more, Joe's struggle continues to raise serious First Amendment issues and -- as we approach the first anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision -- throws yet another spotlight on the increasingly pro-business stance of the nation's legal system.

It was this past May when my friend and colleague Bill Moyers and I first wrote about Joe's documentary Crude and its legal troubles. The film tells the story of how Ecuadorians challenged the pollution of rivers and wells from Texaco's drilling in the Lago Agrio oil field, a rainforest disaster savagely damaging the environment and the local population's health that's been described as the Amazon's Chernobyl. When the petrochemical behemoth Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001 and attempted to dismiss claims that it was now responsible, the indigenous people and their lawyers fought back in court.

In May, Federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered Berlinger to turn over to Chevron more than 600 hours of raw footage used to create the film. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit limited the amount of footage to be turned over (although it still amounts to more than 500 hours), but ordered Berlinger to submit to depositions.

Now, on January 13, that same court ruled, as reported in The New York Times, that Joe "could not invoke a journalist's privilege in refusing to turn over that footage because his work on the film did not constitute an act of independent reporting," and that the argument "that he was protected as a journalist from being compelled to share his reporting materials was not persuasive." As evidence, the court said that the film "was solicited by the plaintiffs in the Lago Agrio litigation for the purpose of telling their story, and changes to the film were made at their instance."

Berlinger responded, "While the idea for Crude was pitched to me by Steven Donziger, one of the Lago Agrio Plaintiffs' lawyers, this was not a commissioned film. I had complete editorial independence, as did 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair who also produced stories on this case that were solicited by Mr. Donziger. The decision to modify one scene in the film based on comments from the plaintiffs' lawyers after viewing the film at the Sundance Film Festival was exclusively my own and in no way diminishes the independence of this production from its subjects. I rejected many other suggested changes and my documentary Crude has been widely praised for its balance in the presentation of Chevron's point of view as well as the plaintiffs'."

Were mistakes made, errors in judgment? Perhaps. But the court's ruling fails to fully understand the nature of news and documentary reporting and will have a chilling effect on journalists who constantly receive information and suggestions from sources representing a variety of interests and points of view. It's the professional journalist's job to sort through them on the way to determining the truth. As Moyers and I wrote in May, "This is a serious matter for reporters, filmmakers and frankly, everyone else. Tough, investigative reporting without fear or favor -- already under siege by severe cutbacks and the shutdown of newspapers and other media outlets -- is vital to the public awareness and understanding essential to a democracy."

Just as dismaying about this latest ruling is the endless sinking feeling that the courts more than ever are stacked against the individual seeking redress against big business. In the 39 states where judges are elected, corporate cash has poured into judicial races -- contributions have more than doubled in recent years, prompting Sandra Day O'Connor to say, "No state can possibly benefit from having that much money injected into a political campaign." And in the federal courts, well, suppose Joe Berlinger's case were to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. A recent Fortune magazine cover proclaimed it "the most pro-business court we have ever seen," and as the Times more understatedly noted last month, "It is clear... that the Supreme Court these days is increasingly focused on business issues."

In case you missed the Times story over the holidays, it was headlined "Justices Offer Receptive Ear to Business Interests." Scholars at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago prepared a report analyzing nearly 1500 Supreme Court decisions across almost six decades. It found, "The Roberts court, which has completed five terms, ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time, compared with 46 percent in the last five years of the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, and 42 percent by all courts since 1953."

According to the Times' Adam Liptak, "The Roberts court's engagement with business issues has risen along with the emergence of a breed of lawyers specializing in Supreme Court advocacy, many of them veterans of the United States solicitor general's office, which represents the federal government in the court. These specialists have been extraordinarily successful, both in persuading the court to hear business cases and to rule in favor of their clients."

Many of these lawyers work for or with the US Chamber of Commerce and its National Chamber Litigation Center, which calls itself "the voice of business in the courts on issues of national concern to the business community."

The Times reported, "The chamber now files briefs in most major business cases. The side it supported in the last term won 13 of 16 cases. Six of those were decided with a majority vote of five justices, and five of those decisions favored the chamber's side. One of them was Citizens United, in which the chamber successfully urged the court to guarantee what it called 'free corporate speech' by lifting restrictions on campaign spending."

The court's independence -- and historic skepticism about the needs of corporate America -- are relics of the past. Here's what was in a 2007 edition of BusinessWeek magazine: "Robin S. Conrad, head of the Chamber of Commerce's litigation arm, notes that the judicial branch offers an alternative forum where business can seek changes it has failed to win from other branches of government. In the 1990s, the chamber and other business groups made this a vital part of their tort reform strategy on a state level, pouring money into local judicial campaigns to reshape state supreme courts and, ultimately, state laws. Now with a US Supreme Court that's not allergic to business cases, the approach is playing out on a national level..."

It was President Calvin Coolidge who in 1925 famously declared, "The chief business of the American people is business," a sentiment this Supreme Court and much of the American judicial system would stoutly embrace. But ironically -- especially for journalists and filmmakers like Joe Berlinger -- he made the remark in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Its title: "The Press under a Free Government."

Truth and freedom, Coolidge said, "are inseparable." There is "no justification for interfering with the freedom of the press, because all freedom, though it may sometime tend toward excesses, bears within it those remedies which will finally effect a cure for its own disorders."