Saturday, April 2, 2011

How Milton Friedman and Chicago Economics Undermined America

Saturday, April 2, 2011 by Corporate Crime Reporter
by Russell Mokhiber

Here’s the thing about the Chicago School of Economics – it wasn’t always this way.

Chicago School now means – market good, government bad.

But that was Chicago School hijacked by Milton Friedman, Robert Bork, and Richard Posner.

There was a Chicago School before Friedman, Bork and Posner.

“The Chicago School began with the view that in order to have a properly functioning free market, the government must drastically curtail the ability of businesses to build and maintain concentrated economic power,” writes Kenneth Davidson in his new book Reality Ignored: How Milton Friedman and Chicago Economics Undermined American Institutions and Endangered the Global Economy (2011). “Early incarnations advocated forbidding corporations to retain their earnings or to purchase other businesses. The explicit fear was that the disproportionate power of big businesses would distort commercial markets and corrupt political freedoms.”

That sounds more like Ralph Nader than the Chicago School.

“It was Henry Simons and Aaron Director,” Davidson told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last night.

“Aaron Director was very close to Milton Friedman. Henry Simons was one of his teachers during the 1930s.”

“Both Director and George Stigler were students of Simons. Simons wrote an essay called A Positive Program for Laissez Faire.”

“It was in the middle of the depression. At that time, people thought that many of the problems affecting the economy in the United States and the rest of the world were due to the growth of the then relatively new giant corporation.”

“They had this ideal that the market would work and would perfectly, but only if you could take out of the market the giant firms that dominated through their economic power.”

“And they saw that economic power as a great threat to the nation and national freedom.

That was essentially a Jeffersonian notion of the market. The market would regulate itself if everybody was a farmer, a yeoman farmer, a small businessman.”

“They thought it would be automatic.”

“By the time Friedman wrote his book – Capitalism and Freedom – in 1962, they had totally changed their minds.”

“The problem was not big business. The problem was government.”

Henry Simons thought the market had to be pretty rigidly controlled. It was bad to allow companies to keep their profits. The profits should be given back to the shareholders every year. And the businesses should have to sell the market every year on whatever their development plans are and raise new capital.”

“Friedman just swept that away. The government could not make a decision that would be correct. He and Stigler were adamant on the fact that the government was not only incompetent to make these decisions, but that whatever regulatory organizations were created would inevitably be dominated by big businesses.”

“So, it was better to let the businesses fight it out themselves in a survival of the fittest mode.”

One hundred years ago, antitrust policy was a populist policy. It was seen as a way not just to break up cartels, but to challenge concentrated economic and political power. Now, antitrust seems weak in comparison. The Chicago School has eviscerated its powers. Antitrust today seems to challenge power only at the edges.

“It’s true,” Davidson said. “The objectives of antitrust when passed were directed at political and social corporate power.”

“People feared the power of the large businesses. Some of those fears went away with the countervailing power of unions.”

“And some went away with the increased income and economic growth of the United States.”

“But we are now seeing much of the same kinds of fears re-emerging out of the deregulation, not only of antitrust as a social and political force, but also the deregulation of the financial sector.”

“The Supreme Court in the Credit Suisse decision two years ago said that antitrust can’t go after misbehavior in the stock markets.”

“Robert Bork, in his book The Antitrust Paradox, denies the history of the antitrust laws – he denies the social and political foundations.”

“To the extent that he would admit the legislative history, he says – that’s just words, it doesn’t make any sense.”

“And he invents or applies a Chicago theory about how the economy works and redefines antitrust.”

“And he says – if its not about this and only this, we should get rid of the antitrust laws.”

“Richard Posner comes along and writes the same thing – it’s about prices, it’s not about power.”

“They are simply making up this history, which then becomes the foundation for saying – when we look at mergers, we don’t look at the consolidation of corporate power, or the enhancement of corporate power. Instead, we look at the question of whether the price of individual products is going to go up or not. And that’s the only thing we look at.”

Do you see any chance for a new trust busting politician like Teddy Roosevelt coming down the pike?

“No,” Davidson said. “I don’t see the President taking the kind of leadership that Roosevelt took in the early 1900s that created antitrust as a political force in the United States.”

“President Obama is much more cautious in the way he goes about these things.”

“What inevitably causes the shift in the political winds is overreaching.”

“And we are seeing overreaching by these large corporations. I very much fear that the temporary resolution on Wall Street of our economic crisis, which ended up in the merger of even larger banks, which are going to be even more susceptible to disastrous failure, is eventually going to cause another crash, and this time the governments will have to break them up.”

“They will have to see that the original Chicago School theory that smaller is better is in fact better.”

“The idea that we let commercial private institutions get bigger and bigger is a recipe for disaster to the economy.”

The FDA and Fukushima Fallout

Saturday, April 2, 2011 by
by Robert Alvarez

Recently, a senior scientist with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made this comment to the news media about radioactive fallout being detected in milk in the United States from the nuclear catastrophe in Japan:

"Radiation is all around us in our daily lives, and these findings are a miniscule amount compared Fukushima-Daiichi to what people experience every day. For example, a person would be exposed to low levels of radiation on a round trip cross country flight, watching television, and even from construction materials.”

No matter how small the dose might be, it is disingenuous to compare an exposure to a specific radioisotope that is released by a major nuclear accident, with radiation exposures in everyday life. The FDA spokesperson should have informed the public that radioiodine provides a unique form of exposure in that it concentrates rapidly in dairy products and in the human thyroid. The dose received, based on official measurements, may be quite small, and pose an equally small risk. However, making a conclusion on the basis of one measurement is fragmentary at best and unscientific at worst. As the accident in Fukushima continues to unfold, the public should be provided with all measurements made of radioactive fallout from the Fukushima reactors to allow for independent analyses.

Moreover, the FDA has been asleep at the switch when it comes to protecting public health from medical radiation exposures. According to the National Council on Radiation Protection, radiation exposures to the American public from medical devices and source, which FDA regulates, have soared by nearly 600 percent since 1982. In 2002, the NCRP estimated that the public received an extra 53 millirem (0.53 mSv) per person per year from medical radiation sources. In 2006, the NCRP estimates that this dose has jumped to 300 millirem (3mSv) -- nearly three times the annual dose allowed by the U.S. EPA from nuclear facilities.

The single largest contributor responsible for half of this dose to the American public is from Computed Tomography or CT Scans, whose use has skyrocketed over the past several years. According to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, as many as 29,000 future cancers could be related to CT scans performed in 2007 alone. According to several recent articles in the New York Times, an alarming number of people have been severely overexposed to CT scans. FDA has yet to comment on how this may be affecting the health of the Americans in everyday life.

Tax Day in America: A People Without a Vision Will Perish

Friday, April 1, 2011 by
by Joseph Gerson

How does it feel to know that nearly 60% of your tax dollars this year will pay for our present and future wars, not for your family’s or communities’ needs?

Our nation is in trouble, and the diagnosis is as old as the Bible, which warns that “A people without a vision will perish”. Our nation has lost its way, and its people are in trouble. People continue to lose their jobs, services, and economic security, while we spend ever greater sums in the disastrous pursuit of global military supremacy.

Consider: the combined debt of our fifty states is $140 billion. That’s a lot of money, about what we spend annually for the self-defeating “wars of choice” in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya. They will likely have cost $3 trillion by the time our grandchildren finish paying for them.

Our nation spends roughly as much for war and war preparations as the rest of the world combined. Does that buy real security? Our people suffer the highest infant mortality rate of any industrialized developed nation, and infant morality is a key indicator of a nation’s societal and future economic health. We’ve suffered a tsunami of housing foreclosures, and we have yet to find our way out of the “jobless recovery” from the country’s greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

What about the cost health care and human services? That’s just 7% of the Federal government’s discretionary spending. Education: what our children need to find jobs and a critical foundation of any democracy? That’s just 6%, and unlike other “developed” nations, most of our graduates begin adulthood with staggering debt from their college loans.

Between tax cuts for the rich and continuing increases in military spending, our communities have been set on the path of de-development, with catastrophic consequences. With the national cuts in block cuts and other spending reductions mean that in the world’s richest nation, we must suffer cuts in health care and programs for the elderly and disabled. Education is increasingly essential, but head start is being reduced, teachers are being laid off by the thousands, class sizes growing, and Pell Grant loans that working and middle class students need for college are withering. Police and fire fighters are losing their jobs, while job training programs are cut.

The budget surplus that President Bush the Lesser inherited from President Clinton didn’t evaporate magically. It was mugged in the back alleys and dark corners of the White House, Congress the Pentagon and K Street. Bush’s tax write off for the super rich, extended by the last lame duck Congressional session, took $2.5 trillion from our communities. $2.5 trillion! That’s quite enough to ensure decent housing and health care for all, to educate our children, to build the infrastructure fueled by sustainable energy that our nation needs to be competitive in the 21st century, and to be paying down the national debt.

The Pentagon’s budget, far and away the world’s largest a decade ago, has doubled since 9-11. Meanwhile our people enjoy less real security. Despite President Obama’s pledge to work for a nuclear weapons free world, $185 billion has been committed to modernize the country’s preparations for nuclear war. Plans are afoot to replace our fleets of Trident nuclear submarines and nuclear bombers. Two decades after the Cold War, we still spend more than $100 billion a year to deploy hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops around the world on an estimated 1,000 foreign military bases, including more than 100 across Japan and more than twice that number in Europe.

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail. Instead of seeking diplomatic or nonviolent solutions to the Libyan crisis, for example urging our Turkish allies to mediate the crisis or urging the Pope, the heads of the Councils of Churches and other renowned religious leaders to serve as human shields, we launched hundreds of cruise missiles and B-2 bomber attacks in yet another unnecessary and very uncertain “war of choice.”

Fifty years ago, outgoing Republican President Dwight Eisenhower warned that the “subversive tentacles” of the “military industrial complex” created to fight two world wars were undermining U.S. democracy. A half century later they are undermining our real security as well.

As anyone who has traveled or lived in Western Europe knows, by cutting our military spending we can enjoy a higher and more secure standard of living. It’s time to refocus our vision and to reorder our priorities.

Tax-Deductible Invasions

How to Wage War and Balance the Budget at the Same Time

Millions of Americans gave George W. Bush unquestioned support when he diverted personnel and resources from the war against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to invade Iraq.

Several million fewer opposed the invasion, stating that the primary mission was to destroy the enemy hiding in Afghanistan that destroyed a part of America and not to expand the war. At first, President Bush claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, capable of destroying Israel and, if placed aboard cargo vessels, could be launched at the east coast of the U.S. When that explanation fizzled, Bush said the invasion was to remove a dictator. Soon, “Regime Change” was the buzz phrase of the month.

Flash forward eight years. Different president. Different country. Same kind of dictatorship. This time, the conservatives have loudly cried that Barack Obama should not have launched missiles at Libya. And many liberals, while protesting expansion of war, were now facing other liberals who supported President Obama’s mini-war of helping oppressed people. The Iraq war has now cost American taxpayers more than $ 780 billion. The two-week (so far) war against Libya has now cost almost $750 million, most of it for Tomahawk missiles.

What’s a president to do? The president’s party spends millions of dollars on polls, none of which are reliable. The president is then forced to put his finger into the wind to see what the voters want—and then does what he wants to do anyway.

Whatever he does will be met by hostility on one side and near-blind support on the other. However, there is a solution. Tax checkoff.

No, that’s not like a distant cousin of the Russian short story writer. It’s a way for the President and the taxpayers to get the biggest bang for their buck.

Let’s say that a president decides he wants to invade some hostile foreign country—Canada, for example. Instead of going into the War Room with his military leadership and plotting how best to meet the strategic, tactical, and political goals of an invasion, he stops for two weeks.

During the first week, all Americans would be sent an email, asking them if they support the invasion of the country that sends Arctic Clippers to the U.S. during Spring. At the end of that week, voting stops. Now, let’s say that 40 percent of Americans think invading Canada is important and the prudent thing to do, but 43 percent oppose it. (The other 17 percent would still be trying to find out why their computers crashed.)

Normally, the president would say that most Americans don’t want to invade Canada and might listen to them. But, the 40 percent are vigorous in their beliefs. No problem.

On the next paycheck will be a question. “Do you support committing American troops to invade Canada, and stopping Arctic Clippers?” Those who answer “yes” will then be assessed a proportion for the costs of that invasion, putting their wallets and purses where their mouths are. If 60 million Americans want war, and the cost is a mere $300 million a week, then each supporter would have about $5 per week deducted from his or her paycheck. It’d hardly be noticeable. Of course, there might be a $5 surcharge for the cost of burying the dead, treating the wounded, and long-term physical and mental rehabilitation. But, hey, even at $10 a week, war is rather cheap. And, most important, all of it is tax-deductible.

Those who don’t support the war wouldn’t have the money deducted. They could decide to support another war later, or pay a “fair share” for more vigorous environmental regulation and enforcement, or even a few dollars a month to allow members of Congress to have junkets. Whatever is raised for junkets would be the total pool available, and would have to be split equally among the 535 members and several thousand critical staffers who, we all know, are the ones who do the work anyhow.

The Tax Checkoff System has one final advantage. With Americans deciding what to support and committing their personal fortunes or anemic savings accounts to the cause, we could wipe out the national debt and war at the same time.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Corporations at Tax Time: Who's Good, Who's Bad, and Who's Very Ugly

Thursday, March 31, 2011 by
by Paul Buchheit

It's tempting to blame government for our middle-income 15-20% tax rates. But the true culprits have documented their own guilt. Comprehensive financial reports called '10-Ks' are issued annually to the SEC by U.S. corporations. Amidst tedious pages of income, flow, and outgo, company accountants deftly balance management's desire to impress stockholders with the need to avoid self-incrimination. has documented recent corporate tax activity from the 10-Ks. We took non-deferred federal tax payments over the past three years and analyzed the figures to determine which companies and industries consistently meet or avoid their obligations. The entire dataset is available on the website.

The GOOD seems to be in the health care industry, where Humana, Medco, Wellpoint, and United Health all paid taxes at rates close to the 35% corporate maximum over the past three years. Some nation-wide family favorites fared well, too. Home Depot, Walgreens, CVS, Kohl's, and Best Buy all approached the 35% rate three years running. Good places to shop.

Companies within specific industries were generally grouped together, as if they didn't want to fall far from the tree. In the middle of the pack were Costco, Walmart, and Target, all consistently paying in the mid-20% tax rate range. Even more noteworthy was the tech industry, which had several companies paying taxes at annual rates between 15 and 20 percent: Microsoft, Oracle, Dell, Google, Apple, Amazon, Cisco, and Comcast.

On to the BAD...Kraft Foods and Coca Cola paid less than 10% in taxes over the three-year period. Chevron paid 5%. Hewlett-Packard 3%. IBM 2%. Exxon 2%. Carnival 1%.

Can't get much worse, it seems. But it does. It gets UGLY.

Boeing and DuPont and Dow Chemical and Verizon all made profits three years in a row, but all received net refunds for the three-year period. The ugliest result comes from General Electric, which made pre-tax profits of $44 billion over three years but received almost $5 billion in refunds! So ugly, indeed, that the company buried its tax benefit (refund) strategy in a nondescript passage near the end of its 10-K.

The big picture:

The top 100 companies, with $5 trillion in 2010 revenue and $500 billion in pre-tax earnings, paid less than 10% last year in non-deferred federal taxes. If these 100 companies had paid the 35% tax designated by U.S. tax law, an additional $140 billion would have been collected in federal taxes in just one year. This is approximately equal to the total budget deficits for all 50 states.

Pay Up Now is committed to a focused national effort to refuse the business of the worst corporate tax offenders. We should not have to subsidize them with our own tax money.

Radiation Found in Rainwater From California to Massachusetts

Fukushima Fallout Hits the US

Three of the six nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have partially melted down and plutonium is seeping into the soil outside. Plutonium is less volatile than other radioactive elements like iodine or cesium, but it's also more deadly.  According to Business Week, "When plutonium decays, it emits what is known as an alpha particle, a relatively big particle that carries a lot of energy. When an alpha particle hits body tissue, it can damage the DNA of a cell and lead to a cancer-causing mutation." If plutonium leaches into groundwater or pristine aquifers, the threat to public health and the environment will be extreme.

This is an excerpt from an article in the Guardian:
"The radioactive core in a reactor at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant appears to have melted through the bottom of its containment vessel and on to a concrete floor, experts say, raising fears of a major release of radiation at the site. The warning follows an analysis by a leading US expert of radiation levels at the plant....
“Richard Lahey, who was head of safety research for boiling-water reactors at General Electric when the company installed the units at Fukushima, told the Guardian workers at the site appeared to have "lost the race" to save the reactor..." ("Japan may have lost race to save nuclear reactor", The Guardian)
It also appears that underground tunnels at the facility have been flooded with radioactive water that contains high-concentrations of caesium-137. A considerable amount of the water has made its way to the sea where samples show the levels of contamination steadily rising. This is from the Wall Street Journal:
"Levels of radiation in the ocean next to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have surged to record highs, the government said Wednesday, as operators try to deal with large amounts of radioactive water—the unwanted byproduct of operations to cool the reactors.
“The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said water taken Tuesday afternoon from the monitoring location for the troubled reactors Nos. 1 to 4 had 3,355 times the permitted concentration of iodine-131. That is the highest yet recorded at the sampling location, which is 330 meters south of the reactors' discharge outlet." ("Seawater Radiation Level Soars Near Plant", Wall Street Journal)
All fishing has been banned in the vicinity as the toxins pose a danger to human health.
The Japanese government's chief spokesman, Yukio Edano, issued a public statement admitting that the situation at Fukushima is progressively getting worse with no end in sight.  "We are not yet in a situation where we can say when we will have this under control," said Edano. In other words, the emergency effort is failing.

The fact that Japan is experiencing what’s shaping up to be one of the  biggest environmental catastrophe in history explains why the media have been trying so hard to divert the public's attention to Obama's military adventure in Libya. But it hasn't worked; all eyes are locked on Fukushima where the crisis continues to get more precarious by the day. 

News anchors assure their viewers that they are only being exposed to "safe levels of radioactivity", but people aren't buying it. They've seen the comparisons to Chernobyl and made their own judgements.  Here's an excerpt from an article in Counterpunch by Chris Busby that gives a thumbnail sketch of the human costs of the meltdown at Chernobyl:
"The health effects of the Chernobyl accident are massive and demonstrable. They have been studied by many research groups in Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine, in the USA, Greece, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan. The scientific peer reviewed literature is enormous. Hundreds of papers report the effects, increases in cancer and a range of other diseases. My colleague Alexey Yablokov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, published a review of these studies in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (2009). Earlier in 2006 he and I collected together reviews of the Russian literature by a group of eminent radiation scientists and published these in the book Chernobyl, 20 Years After. The result: more than a million people have died between 1986 and 2004 as a direct result of Chernobyl." 
One million dead, that's the bottom line.  And, according to Busby, "we can already calculate that the contamination (at Fukushima) is actually worse than Chernobyl."

That's certain, but don't expect to read it in the MSM. Or this, which is also from Busby:
“Since the official International Atomic Energy Agency  (IAEA) figures for the Fukushima contamination are from 200 to 900kBq.sq metre out to 78km from the site, we can expect between 22 per cent  and 90 per cent  increases in cancer in people living in these places in the next 10 years."
There's a large body of research on the effects of radiation on humans. In fact, scientists conducted a series of studies on the people living on the Marshall Islands following nuclear weapons tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls. This is where the US exploded more than 60 atomic bombs between 1946-58. Here's an excerpt from Glenn Alcalay’s  article in Counterpunch titled "Radiation, Japan and the Marshall Islands; Living and dying downwind":
"The legacy of latent radiogenic diseases from hydrogen bomb testing in the Marshall Islands provides some clues about what ill-health mysteries await the affected Japanese in the decades ahead.....Traces of I-131 have been discovered in Tokyo drinking water and in seawater offshore from the reactors. It took nine years for the first thyroid tumor to appear among the exposed Marshallese and hypothyroidism and cancer continued to appear decades later......
Plutonium-239 has a half life of 24,000 years, is considered one of the most toxic substances on Earth, and if absorbed is a potent alpha emitter that can induce cancer. This isotope too is found in the soils and groundwater of the downwind atolls from the Bikini and Enewetak H-bomb tests...
Radioactive Iodine-129 with a half-life of 15 million years and a well-documented capacity to bioaccumulate in the foodchain, will also remain as a persistent problem for the affected Japanese...
“The sociocultural and psychological effects [e.g., PTSD] of the Fukushima nuclear disaster will be long-lasting, given the uncertainty surrounding the contamination of their prefecture and beyond." ("Radiation, Japan and the Marshall Islands; Living and dying downwind", Glenn Alcalay, Counterpunch)
It's all bad, which is why the nuclear industry needs stooges in the media to soft-peddle the news. Because, in truth, what they're selling is a noxious stew of irradiated poison that kills and maims people while causing incalculable damage to the environment. That's why industry bigwigs have turned to their friends at the EPA to loosen regulations so that the radioactive material that's presently showering-down on the US falls within EPA safety standards. Here's a clip from Washington's Blog that explains what's going on behind the public's back: "....the EPA is considering drastically raising the amount of allowable radiation in food, water and the environment."

As Michael Kane writes:
“In the wake of the continuing nuclear tragedy in Japan, the United States government is still moving quickly to increase the amounts of radiation the population can ‘safely’ absorb by raising the safe zone for exposure to levels designed to protect the government and nuclear industry more than human life. It’s all about cutting costs now as the infinite-growth paradigm sputters and moves towards extinction. As has been demonstrated by government conduct in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of Deepwater Horizon and in Japan, life has taken a back seat to cost-cutting and public relations posturing. The game plan now appears to be to protect government and the nuclear industry from “excessive costs”… at any cost." (Washington's Blog)
The radioactive toxins that are now oozing into the soil and water-table or flowing into Japan's coastal waters or lofting skyward into the jet-stream where they will spread across continents, will continue to wreak havoc long after this generation has passed its mortal coil.

Easing EPA safety standards won't change a thing. Where goes radiation, there too goes cancer and death. The disaster in Japan merely buys a little time for us to rethink our own policies before a similar crisis strikes here. And, it will strike here; it's only a matter of time.

Consider the comments of Dave Lochbaum, Director of UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project, who testified on Wednesday before the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. Here's what he said:
"Today, tens of thousands of tons of irradiated fuel sits in spent fuel pools across America. At many sites, there is nearly ten times as much irradiated fuel in the spent fuel pools as in the reactor cores. The spent fuel pools are not cooled by an array of highly reliable emergency cooling systems capable of being powered from the grid, diesel generators, or batteries. Instead, the pools are cooled by one regular system sometimes backed up by an alternate makeup system.
“The spent fuel pools are not housed within robust concrete containment structures designed to protect the public from the radioactivity released from damaged irradiated fuel. Instead, the pools are often housed in buildings with sheet metal siding like that in a Sears storage shed. I have nothing against the quality or utility of Sears’ storage sheds, but they are not suitable for nuclear waste storage.
“The irrefutable bottom line is that we have utterly failed to properly manage the risk from irradiated fuel stored at our nation’s nuclear power plants. We can and must do better." (The Union of Concerned Scientists.)
Nuclear energy is a ticking-timebomb. There are safer ways to keep the lights on.

Group warns EPA ready to increase radioactive release guidelines

(You gotta love the timing of this.--jef)

Mar. 16, 2011
Written by
Anne Paine

The EPA is preparing to dramatically increase permissible radioactive releases in drinking water, food and soil after “radiological incidents,” according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

What is termed a guidance that EPA is considering - as opposed to a regulation - does not require public airing before it’s decided upon.

EPA officials contacted today in the Atlanta and D.C. offices had no response on the issue as of 6 p.m.

The radiation guides called Protective Action Guides or PAGs are protocols for responding to radiological events ranging from nuclear power-plant accidents to dirty bombs.

Drinking water, for example, would have a huge increase in allowable public exposure to radioactivity, the group says, that would include:

A nearly 1000-fold increase in strontium-90

A 3000 to 100,000-fold hike for iodine-131

An almost 25,000 rise for nickel-63

The new radiation guidance would also allow long-term cleanup standards thousands of times more lax than anything EPA has ever before accepted, permitting doses to the public that EPA itself estimates would cause a cancer in as much as every fourth person exposed, the group says.

These relaxed standards are opposed by public health professionals inside EPA, according to documents PEER said it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

PEER is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals

Ohio House Panel OKs Public Worker Union Bill

Tuesday, March 29, 2011 by the Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A legislative committee in Ohio approved a measure Tuesday that would limit collective bargaining rights for 350,000 public workers and delivering a blow to unions in how they collect certain fees.

The Republican-controlled House Commerce and Labor Committee voted 9-6 along party lines to recommend the bill after making more than a dozen substantive changes to the legislation that was approved by the Senate.

The changes include removing jail time as a possible penalty for workers who participate in strikes and making clear that public safety workers could negotiate over equipment.

A vote on the bill in the GOP-controlled House could come Wednesday. The Senate, also led by Republicans, passed the bill earlier this month on a 17-16 vote and would have to agree to any House changes before Gov. John Kasich could sign it into law.

Similar limits to collective bargaining have cropped up in statehouses across the country, most notably in Wisconsin, where the governor earlier this month signed a measure into law eliminating most of state workers' collective bargaining rights.

The Ohio measure would apply to public workers across the state, such as police, firefighters, teachers and state employees. They could negotiate wages and certain work conditions but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. The measure would do away with automatic pay raises and would base future wage increases on merit.

Opponents have vowed a ballot repeal if the Ohio measure passes.

Democrats have offered no amendments. Instead, they delivered boxes containing more than 65,000 opponent signatures to the committee's chairman.

The legislation was met with demonstrations and packed hearing rooms in the weeks before the Senate passed the measure. On Tuesday, several hundred protesters listened to the committee's amendments over the loudspeakers positioned around the Statehouse before they headed outside to chants of "Kill the bill!"

Other changes the committee made would prevent nonunion employees affected by contracts from paying fees to union organizations and would ban automatic deductions from employee paychecks that would go the unions' political arm.

All GOP members on the House panel voted in favor of the changes, while Democrats voted against them.

What Location Tracking Looks Like

by Seth Schoen 

Your cell phone company knows everywhere you go, twenty-four hours a day, every day. How concrete is this fact for you?
Droid Apps Cell Phone
It's very concrete for Malte Spitz, a German politician and privacy advocate. He used German privacy law — which, like the law of many European countries, gives individuals a right to see what private companies know about them — to force his cell phone carrier to reveal what it knew about him. The result? 35,831 different facts about his cell phone use over the course of six months. As the German newspaper website Zeit Online reports:
This profile reveals when Spitz walked down the street, when he took a train, when he was in an airplane. It shows where he was in the cities he visited. It shows when he worked and when he slept, when he could be reached by phone and when was unavailable. It shows when he preferred to talk on his phone and when he preferred to send a text message. It shows which beer gardens he liked to visit in his free time. All in all, it reveals an entire life.
To show just how extensive this data is, Spitz chose to make it all available to the public; Zeit Online used it to prepare a remarkable interactive map, which animates Spitz's movements, moment by moment, over the course of half a year. It's correlated with information Spitz willingly posted on the web, and, according to him and the newspaper, is remarkably, eerily accurate. Try it out.

A report in the New York Times on Saturday described the data release, which it called "astounding", and put it in a U.S. context, quoting EFF's Kevin Bankston. The Times tried to find out whether U.S. mobile phone carriers have similar data about their subscribers, but it said "[t]he major American cellphone providers declined to explain what exactly they collect and what they use it for."

EFF has been following this issue for years and has worked extensively to limit government access to location data about individuals; government agents have increasingly sought to use this information, using questionable legal arguments to get carriers to turn it over. Still, it's remarkable to see an actual location data set about a real person. (According to the Times, German carriers have, for legal reasons, now stopped routinely storing this data. However, like all mobile phone carriers, they still have the technical ability to collect it at any time.)

Malte Spitz explains why he worked to obtain this information: to help educate the public about some of what's at stake in the German and worldwide debates about telecommunications data retention. All around the world, including the United States, proposed laws would force carriers to retain enormous quantities of personal information. As Spitz and Zeit Online have shown, these troves of information can give a detailed picture of each person's private life.

Censorship: Made in the USA

by Tim Karr

March has been a stormy month across the Arab world as the hope for new democracy faces the harsh reality of despots armed with guns, tanks and the tools of censorship.

In Libya, the Gaddafi regime plunged the nation into digital darkness during the first week of March, turning off Internet access to keep Libyans from organizing one another and documenting Gaddafi's crimes for the world to see.

In Bahrain, the kingdom reacted to democracy demonstrators by blacking out websites where locals shared cell phone videos, blocking YouTube pages containing videos of street protests, and taking down a large Facebook group that called for more demonstrations.

It doesn't end there.

According to a new report by the not-for-profit OpenNet Initiative (ONI), Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, UAE and Sudan have joined the ranks of censors, using software to block access to homegrown protest sites.

This crackdown is having a ripple effect across the United States, in ways many might not expect. Much of the censorship technology in use in the Arab world was made by American companies willing to look the other way as regimes use it to smother opposition.

The ONI report fingers several American companies, including Intel-owned McAfee, Inc., San Diego-based Websensce, Inc., and Palo Alto Networks, for selling software that red lists websites and blocks all access.

Last month, I reported on another U.S. company, Narus of Sunnyvale, California, which sold to Egypt and Libya an Internet spying technology that lets state security forces track online and cellphone communications and even target the speaker's whereabouts for arrest.

The Narus report prompted Republican and Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations Committee to demand a State Department investigation, the results of which are pending.

In the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois slammed the U.S. tech industry for not owning up to the abusive application of their products. He wrote, "If U.S. companies are unwilling to take reasonable steps to protect human rights, Congress must step in."

It's encouraging to hear members of Congress speak out. But curtailing the sale of this technology won't happen until they match words with action.

Rep. Bill Keating of Massachusetts is the only voice on the Hill to pledge to take that next step, proposing legislation that would prevent U.S. trafficking in censorship technology.

"People are losing their lives based on this technology," he said during a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing. In a later statement he said he would introduce legislation "that would provide a national strategy to prevent the use of American technology from being used by human rights abusers."

I'm hopeful we'll see this legislation soon. (You can contact both congressmen Keating and Durbin to encourage them to act, too.)

Freedom of speech and assembly shouldn't end at America's border, or whenever we log on to the Internet. It's time Washington took action against U.S. technology companies that are helping despots silence their people.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How to Waste Money and Lives: The American Prison System

Wednesday, March 30, 2011 by
by Celia Chazelle

In 1970, fewer than 200,000 Americans were incarcerated. Today, with some 2.3 million in prison or jail, the US has more people and a higher percentage of its population locked up than any other country. Adding those on probation and parole, over seven million are under penal supervision. Although much of the growth stems from tougher drug laws, increased sentencing for most offenses has played a large role, too. According to criminologist Todd Clear, prison sentences in the US today average almost twice as long as thirty years ago. American prisoners now endure sentences twice those of the English, four times those of the Dutch, and five to ten times those of the French for the same crimes.

Our penal system affects more middle-class white Americans than we might realize, yet the impact on them is tiny compared with that on minorities – especially young black men from impoverished urban neighborhoods. Over 90 percent of inmates are male, and while 12 percent of the U.S. population is African-American, over 40 percent of prisoners with sentences longer than one year are black. The toll on black families has been incalculable. From the end of slavery until 1970, most black children lived in a two-parent household; now, the majority are cared for only by women. While not the only factor at play, the numbers of black men behind bars have left an entire cohort of girlfriends, wives, and female relatives to raise their kids alone. In minority urban ghettos, where the effects are concentrated, so many men are incarcerated that children think of this as a normal part of adult male life. Many barely know imprisoned fathers. With most prisoners sent off more than 100 miles from home, family visits can be next to impossible. An added irony is that the prisons support the economies of distant, mainly rural and white locales, while the inner cities bearing the brunt of crime remain impoverished.

The costs of our incarceration binge fly in the face of economic sense. From 1982 to 2006, the amount spent on corrections rose by 660 percent. The 2009 bill for jails and prisons was over $60 billion; New Jersey, where I live, spent about $39,000 on each state prisoner in 2009, far more than the cost of tuition at a state college. Some states have cut corrections budgets in response to the economic crisis, but others have increased them, as has the federal government. Our enthusiasm for locking up people raises important moral questions about ourselves. Dostoyevsky was right on the mark when he wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” But even if we focus only on dollars and cents, we must consider the lost opportunities to invest resources in schools, free clinics, afterschool programs, transportation, and other public goods. Politicians and the media have everyone in a frenzy about deficits. Two obvious ways to balance government budgets are to tax the rich and cut defense spending, but it would certainly help if we reduced the populations behind prison walls. Some states have made small moves in this direction, aided by recent declines in crime. But politicians are generally fearful that if they advocate policies to reduce prison populations, they will appear soft on crime.

Despite our harsh prison sentences, however, most released inmates are rearrested within three years. Many get charged with parole violations, but the majority with new crimes. If incarceration is supposed to deter people from illegal behavior, it is not working for ex-prisoners. One reason is that most return to the jobless inner cities they came from, where criminal activity can seem the only way to make a living. Another is how corrections budgets are allocated.

I tell students in my medieval history classes that for all our lip service to rehabilitating offenders, it is striking how much less this goal seems reflected in our penal policies than in those of European communities in the early Middle Ages, from about 500 to 1100. This is not to deny that early medieval justice could be brutal. Kings and lords condemned countless enemies to execution and dependants to be branded, blinded, or lose noses or ears. Judicial courts ordered torture and threw offenders into dungeons, where they might stay in chains until they died. It is no wonder the era is often called the Dark Age. Yet offsetting this nasty picture was the widespread practice of addressing an array of offenses, sometimes even murder, not through arbitrary judgment but as if they were disputes requiring negotiations. In these cases, negotiators worried less about formal law than restoring the peace by reconciling offenders with victims, victims’ representatives, and anyone else who felt wronged. Offenders were punished, but a key aim of the punishment was rehabilitation. This might require that they pay reparations, undergo penance, or perform a public ritual of humiliation. Such penalties were designed to repair the broken social bonds and ease the offenders’ reintegration into their communities.

By contrast, criminal justice in the twenty-first century US gives rehabilitation short shrift. Many inmates suffer from mental illness and addictions, yet treatment programs for them are underfunded. So, too, is education; yet education may be the single most effective means to rehabilitate offenders.

While not every prisoner needs substance abuse treatment, all could benefit from education. Most prisons have education programs, but they reach a fraction of their populations and average only 1 to 3 percent of state corrections budgets. The Center for Prison Outreach and Education that I co-direct provides college programming in New Jersey prisons thanks to federal grants and private benefactors; most notably, we have generous support from Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation. It has taken a lot of work to collect this extra funding. Despite the reluctance of state governments to fund prison education adequately, dollar for dollar, educating inmates is a more effective tool of crime reduction than building new prisons. Ex-prisoners face major barriers upon release; education increases their ability to navigate the hurdles and makes them more employable. One study estimates it lessens recidivism by 29%. Another revealed a 44 percent drop in recidivism for inmates who earned college degrees. Another suggests that $962 spent on academic education for inmates saved $5306 in future criminal justice costs. Along the way, educational programs also reduce violence inside prisons, improving security for both inmates and staff.

African-American men who do not finish high school have almost 60 per cent chance of doing time by age forty. For those with high school diplomas, the rate plummets to 18 percent, and for those with some college education the chances are less than 5 percent. If we genuinely want to enhance public safety, help poor minority families, AND have more money to spend on public services for everyone, a truly cost-effective strategy would be to put substantial energy and resources into prisoner education.

Obama's Fatal Corporate Addiction

Wednesday, March 30, 2011 by
by Robert Scheer

If it had been revealed that Jeffrey Immelt once hired an undocumented nanny, or defaulted on his mortgage, he would be forced to resign as head of President Barack Obama’s “Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.” But the fact that General Electric, where Immelt is CEO, didn’t pay taxes on its $14.5 billion profit last year—and indeed is asking for a $3.2 billion tax rebate—has not produced a word of criticism from the president, who in January praised Immelt as a business leader who “understands what it takes for America to compete in the global economy.” [AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite President Barack Obama applauds GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, right, before speaking to workers at the GE plant in Schenectady, NY on Jan. 21.] AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite President Barack Obama applauds GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, right, before speaking to workers at the GE plant in Schenectady, NY on Jan. 21.

What it takes, evidently, is shifting profit and jobs abroad: Only one out of three GE workers is now based in the U.S., and almost two-thirds of the company’s profit is sheltered in its foreign operations. Thanks to changes in the tax law engineered when another avowedly pro-business Democrat, Bill Clinton, was president, U.S. multinational financial companies can avoid taxes on their international scams. And financial scams are what GE excelled in for decades, when GE Capital, its financial unit, which specialized in credit card, consumer loan and housing mortgage debt, accounted for most of GE’s profits.

That’s right, GE, along with General Motors with its toxic GMAC financial unit, came to look more like an investment bank than a traditional industrial manufacturing giant that once propelled this economy and ultimately it ran into the same sort of difficulties as the Wall Street hustlers. As The New York Times’ David Kocieniewski, who broke the GE profit story, put it: “Because its lending division, GE Capital, has provided more than half of the company’s profit in some recent years, many Wall Street analysts view G.E. not as a manufacturer but as an unregulated lender that also makes dishwashers and M.R.I. machines.”

Maximizing corporate profits at the taxpayer’s expense is what top CEOs are good at, and after all it was Immelt who presided over GE when it got so heavily into the subprime mortgage business that it needed a government bailout to avoid bankruptcy. This was before Obama made him a trusted adviser.

Back at the end of 2008, Bloomberg reported that the U.S. government had agreed to insure an additional $139 billion in GE Capital’s debt holdings, the second such intervention within a month, adding, “The company’s exposure to the deepest financial crisis since the 1930s has cut its market value by more than half this year.” A Washington Post exposĂ© titled “How a Loophole Benefits GE in Bank Rescue” documented the power of Immelt’s lobbying operation in Washington. GE was not initially deemed eligible for the debt guarantee program offered to failing banks, “but regulators soon loosened the eligibility requirements, in part because of behind-the scenes appeals from GE.” And it worked; as the Post reported, “The government’s actions have been `powerful and helpful’ to the company, GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt acknowledged.” For the next two years, GE would still report enormous profits without paying taxes, adding insult to the injury that financial shenanigans had inflicted on ordinary taxpayers who bailed the company out.

On Feb. 6, 2009, Immelt sent a contrite annual letter to GE shareholders, admitting, “Our Company’s reputation was tarnished because we weren’t the ‘safe and reliable’ growth company that is our aspiration.” While conceding his own culpability in GE’s downturn, Immelt predicted a rosy future: “I accept responsibility for this. But, I think the environment presents an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Not, obviously, for the 50 million Americans who have either lost their homes or are deeply underwater in a housing market that is still in steep decline thanks to the lending practices of companies like GE Capital. Nope, the good times are in the offing only for corporations that know how to make the U.S. government a partner in their scams. As Immelt stated blatantly: “The global economy, and capitalism, will be `reset’ in several important ways. The interaction between government and business will change forever. In a reset economy, the government will be a regulator; and also an industry policy champion, a financier, and a key partner.”

That’s the essential blueprint for Obama’s restructuring of the economy, as the president put it in selecting Immelt to replace Paul Volcker as head of his outside team of economic advisers. Volcker had become increasingly critical of the corporate high rollers. Obama, although noting the suffering of ordinary Americans, clearly believes that such populism is now beside the point. As the president put it in announcing Immelt’s appointment on Jan. 20, 2011: “The past two years was about moving our economy back from the brink. Our job now is putting our economy into overdrive.”

But overdrive, with CEOs like Immelt shifting the gears, is what brought us so close to the brink. Once again Obama seems fatally addicted to the notion that the heavy hitters who got us into this mess are the very folks to be trusted to get us out of it. What he seems incapable of grasping is that while they are personally very good at avoiding the precipice, the rest of us are hardly passengers in their limos.

The Future of Agriculture

Garden as If Your Life Depends On It--Because It Will
Spring has sprung—at least south of the northern tier of states where snow still has a ban on it—and the grass has 'riz. And so has the price of most foods, which is particularly devastating just now when so many Americans are unemployed, underemployed, retired or retiring, on declining or fixed incomes and are having to choose between paying their mortgages, credit card bills, car payments, and medical and utility bills and eating enough and healthily. Many are eating more fast food, prepared foods, junk food—all of which are also becoming more expensive—or less food.

In some American towns, and not just impoverished backwaters, as many as 30 percent of residents can't afford to feed themselves and their families sufficiently, let alone nutritiously. Here in the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina where I live it's 25 percent. Across the country one out of six of the elderly suffers from malnutrition and hunger. And the number of children served one or two of their heartiest, healthiest meals by their schools grows annually as the number of them living at poverty levels tops twenty percent. Thirty-seven million Americans rely on food banks that now routinely sport half-empty shelves and report near-empty bank accounts. And this is a prosperous nation!

In some cases this round of price hikes on everything from cereal and steak to fresh veggies and bread—and even the flour that can usually be bought cheaply to make it— will be temporary. But over the long term the systems that have provided most Americans with a diversity, quantity and quality of foods envied by the rest of the world are not going to be as reliable as they were.

What's for Supper Down the Road?

As they move through the next few decades Americans can expect
* the price of conventionally produced food to rise and not come down again,

* prices to rollercoaster so that budgeting is unpredictable,

* some foods to become very expensive compared to what we're used to

* and others, beginning with some of the multiple versions of the same thing made by the same company to garner a bigger market share and more shelf space, to gradually become unavailable.
Tremors in food supply chains and pricing will make gardening look like a lot more than a hobby, a seasonal workout, a practical way to fill your pantry with your summer favorites, or a physically, spiritually and mentally healing activity, or all four. Gardening and small-scale and collective farming, especially of staple crops and the ones that could stave off malnutrition, could become as important as bringing home the bacon, both the piggy and the dollar kind. Why?

Why's Gardening So Important Now?

There are at least five reasons why more of us should take up spade, rake and hoe, make compost and raise good soil and garden beds with a vengeance, starting this spring and with an eye toward forever.
1) Peak oil. Most petroleum experts agree that we shot past peak oil in the US around 1971. Lest you've missed the raging (, that's the point at which more than half the readily, affordably retrievable oil in reserves has been used up, what remains is more expensive to retrieve, and the dregs are irretrievable. We've shot or are about to shoot past peak worldwide, estimates of when ranging from 2007 to 2013, with many oil company execs agreeing to at least the latter. There are no new cheap-easy oil fields coming on line. Any new fields you hear about or new methods, like tar sands drilling are expensive, water guzzling, dangerous, environmentally disastrous and unlikely to produce more than a few years worth of oil, and that a decade or more down the line. That means abundant, cheap oil is about to be history. What difference does that make?

For one thing, there is no replacement for oil that can do all that oil has done as cheaply and universally as oil has done it. I offer an exercise in Life Rules, "The ABC's of Peak Oil" which helps readers imaginatively subtract from their lives everything that depends in one way or another on cheap easy oil. It doesn't leave much. (See Beth Terry's website, for example, for what subtracting plastics may entail.)

The global economy that presently supplies us with our food, runs on cheap oil and lots of it. It runs slower and less predictably on expensive oil that's hard to get because it's located in hard-to-reach or high-risk conflict-ridden zones. Cheap, abundant food on the shelves of grocery and big box stores and food banks, on our tables and in our bellies depends on cheap abundant oil for fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and to power farm machinery and transport food from fields to processors and packagers and then to purveyors and consumers, around the world. Past peak, that system's going to have the half-life of the strontium 90 that's escaping the Fukushimi Dai-ichi reactor: 29 years, or there abouts. One good global crisis, and not that long.

2) Peak soil & space: A couple of links between peak oil and peak soil: First, it matters that one of the proposed alternatives to oil is biofuels. Acreage around the world is being converted from production of corn, wheat and soy for human and animal consumption—i.e., food—to production of ethanol and biofuels to put in trucks and cars and . . . Which makes remaining corn, et al, more expensive. Some energeconomy geniuses are proposing that Afghanis, for example, convert the fields of opium poppies that are their primary agricultural export, not to growing grains or legumes or other staple foods, but to biofuel, which would, not coincidentally, make the gasoline that goes in American military equipment much cheaper and provide Afghanis with a profitable market item rather than food.

According to a 2009 National Geographic staff report, "The corn used to make a 25-gallon tank of ethanol would feed one person for a year." Tell that to Archer-Daniels-Midland, Al Gore's deep-pockets friend and mega-ethanol and corn products producer.

Second, the huge oil-gluttonous machinery that has made factory farming possible has compacted soils, literally crushing the life out of them.

Arable land in the developing or so-called Third World has been at a premium since time immemorial, thanks to geographic location and/or persistent plundering by empires old and new. Revolutions in north Africa and the Middle East are occurring not just to obtain more democratic governments but also to obtain more food and more affordable food. Revolutionaries are barking up a tree that's seen better days.

In the United States and elsewhere in the developed, read "First" world, arable land has reached peak production. All those petroleum-based products that fueled the Green Revolution of the last century, also produce so many crops, constantly, with support from toxic chemicals and without concern for the microbes that make soil a live, self-regenerating system, that most American farmland—if its farmers didn't go organic a while back—is comprised of dead soils. Peak oil makes a repeat of the petroleum-driven 20th century Green Revolution impossible, which is good for soil and other living things, not so much for food prices and supplies.

After peak, in soil like in oil, comes descent. Adding insult to injury, every year farmers lose thousands of acres of arable land to urban and suburban sprawl and more tons of topsoil than they produce of grain and other field crops to attrition. Half the Earth's original trove of topsoil, like that which once permitted the American Midwest to feed the world, has been lost to wind and erosion. Millions of years in the making, it has been depleted and degraded by industrialized agriculture in only a couple of centuries. China's soils ride easterly winds across the Pacific to settle out on cars and rooftops in California while the American Bread Basket's soils are building deltas and dead zones at the mouth of the Mississippi. Like oil, that soil isn't coming back. We can only build it, help it to build itself and wait.

3) Monoculture: We can cut to the chase on this one. The food we eat is produced on industrial-strength, fossil-fuel-driven super farms. Those farms practice monoculture: the planting one crop, often of one genetic strain of that crop, at a time and sometimes year after year over vast landscapes of plowed field. When thousands of acres of farmland are sown with the same genetic strain of grain, uncongenial bout of weather, disease or pest to which that strain is susceptible can wipe out the whole crop. At present the Ug99 fungus, called stem rust, which emerged a decade ago in Africa, could wipe out more than 80% of the world's wheat crops as it spreads, according to a 2009 article in the L. A. Times. Recent studies follow its appearance in other countries downwind of eastern Africa where it originated, including Yemen and Iran (where revolutionaries are already protesting rising prices and shortages), which opens the possibility of its emergence further downwind in Central and Eastern Asia. The race is on to breed resistant plants before it reaches Canada or the U.S. But it can take a decade or more to create a universally adaptable new genetic line that is resistant to a new disease like stem rust that can travel much faster than that. The current spike in the price of wheat is due in part to Ug99 which might properly be renamed "Ugh."

4) Climate instability. Bad -- uncongenial -- weather has lately devastated crops in the upper Midwest, Florida, Mexico, Russia, China, Australia, parts of Africa and elsewhere. Many climate scientists believe we've passed the equivalent of peak friendly and familiar weather, too. And while increasing heat will bedevil harvests, intense cold, downpours and flooding, drought and destructive storm systems will make farming an increasingly hellish occupation if profit is what's being farmed for. The transitional climate will be unpredictable from season and will produce more extremes of weather and weather-related disasters which means farmers will not be able to assume much about growing seasons, rainfall patterns and getting crops through to harvest. If the past is precedent, the transition from the climate we've been used to for 10,000 years to whatever stable climate emerges out of climate chaos next, could take decades, centuries or even millennia. Especially if we keep messing with it. When a whole nation's or region's staple crops, especially grains, are lost or on-again-off-again, everything down the line from the crops themselves become more expensive, from meat, poultry and dairy to every kind of processed food. I.e., the food we shop for as if supermarkets were actually where food comes from.

5) The roller-coaster economy. This isn't the place for me to offer my explanation for the probability of global economic collapse. (See ( for that.) No pundits, talking-heads or economic analysts (well, very few) deny there are rough economic times ahead. Even many of the cautious among them acknowledge that we may be looking at five or six years of high unemployment and many of the lost jobs won't be coming back. The less cautious, like me, predict the collapse of the whole fossil-fueled, funny-money, inequitable, overly-complicated global economic system in the lifetimes of anyone under 50. Well, at the rate we're going in all the wrong directions politically and economically, I hazard the guess, anyone under 80.

Clearly, depending on the present system to provide us with most or all of our food reliably or long-term, is unwise in the extreme. Which is how we get back to why we need to garden as if our lives depended on it. Bringing food production processes and systems closer to home is going to prove vital to our survival. We need to take producing our own and each other's food as seriously as we've taken producing a money income because growing numbers of us won't have enough money to buy food in the conventional ways and there will be less of it to buy. So what's our recourse?

Gardening Like Everybody's Business

Under the influence and auspices of the prevailing economy, most Americans have forgotten how to provide for themselves. We've become accustomed to earning money with which we buy provisions. That process is about the have the legs kicked out from under it. Instead of earning money (or its funny-money kin like credit cards) to buy the things we need, we'll need to start providing more of those things for ourselves and each other locally and (bio)regionally. Gardening -- and small-scale farming -- while they will need to be undertaken in a businesslike fashion will be less about doing business than about everyone's having something to eat and more people being busy providing it. And while not everyone will be able to garden or farm, we are all able to get up close and personal with those who do.

The GOP's Absurd Plan for the Economy: Lowering YOUR Wages

The GOP is embracing some very dangerous voodoo economics
By Joshua Holland, AlterNet
March 29, 2011

Earlier this month, House Republicans laid out a perverse plan to lower working Americans' wages, supposedly in a bid to get employers to hire more of them (PDF). One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of the “race to the bottom.”

Republican staffers on the Joint Economic Committee released the study in response to widespread criticism that the deep public sector cuts they've advocated threaten to derail an already anemic “recovery” -- economist Mark Zandi estimated last month that if enacted, the spending cuts would cost the U.S. economy 700,000 jobs through 2012.

So, as Tim Fernholz and Jim Tankersley wrote in the National Journal, the GOP report “makes the party’s ... case that fiscal consolidation (read: spending cuts) can spur immediate economic growth and reduce unemployment.”

The paper calls for cuts that are “large, credible, and politically difficult to reverse once made,” and offers a typical conservative fantasy about shuttering entire federal agencies. But topping the list of what should be on the Republicans' chopping block is “decreasing the number and compensation of government workers,” which the staffers say will spur job creation because “a smaller government workforce increases the available supply of educated, skilled workers for private firms, thus lowering labor costs.”

“Labor costs,” of course mean “wages” – Americans' paychecks. So, a central plank in the GOP's economic recovery plan is to flood the market with yet more unemployed people in order to drive wages (which have stagnated for an extended period) further down.

That's part and parcel with a larger assault on the middle class. Cutting public employees also means laying off workers in a sector with a 38 percent unionization rate, and forcing them to compete against those toiling in corporate America with its 7 percent union density -- last year, more working people belonged to a union in the public sector (7.9 million) than in the private (7.4 million), despite the fact that corporate America employs five times the number of wage-earners.

With state and local budgets hit hard by the economic crash, and the right painting public sector workers as the 21st century-version of Ronald Reagan's mythic welfare queens, this process is already underway. Last year, Fed Reserve Chairmen Ben Bernanke estimated that the public sector had laid off a quarter million workers since 2007. According to a Labor Department report, state and local governments beat every other sector in terms of the number of workers laid off last summer. 30,000 were laid off last month alone, and, as the conservative noted, “the troubles at the state and local levels promise to be a fixture for some time to come.”

The GOP's paper is based on some remarkable voodoo economics. As Fernholz and Tankersley note, their response to critics “is that 'non-Keynesian' effects — increased business and consumer confidence that their taxes won’t rise as a result of government retrenchment—will provide immediate positive results across the economy.” This is based the popular and wholly false conservative meme that “uncertainty” about future taxes and regulations is keeping employers from hiring.

Numerous surveys have found that it is a lack of customers, and not “uncertainty” about future taxes that is leading employers not to hire. It's entirely consistent with a huge drop in demand in our consumer-driven economy following the housing market crash. As economist Dean Baker wrote last month, the recession “reduced consumption through what is known as the “housing wealth effect.”

The housing wealth effect is estimated at five to seven cents on the dollar, meaning that homeowners will on average increase their annual consumption by between five and seven cents for every additional dollar of housing they own. This means that the $8 trillion of housing-bubble wealth implied an increase in annual consumption of between $400 and $560 billion. Now that most of the bubble wealth is lost, so is this consumption.

The total reduction in annual demand as a result of the collapse of the bubbles in residential and non-residential real estate is close to $1.2 trillion, or 8 percent of GDP. There is nothing in the economist’s bag of tricks that easily replaces such a large loss in demand.

With consumer demand recovering very gradually – it was up 0.3 percent when adjusted for inflation in February, but much of that was simply a matter of households spending more for fuel – putting downward pressure on wages and sending more people to the unemployment line is about the worst thing lawmakers could do.

But the Republican staffers insist their plan is grounded firmly in empirical evidence. And they insist the evidence shows not only that the deficit must be reduced, but also that it has to be done through spending cuts rather than tax hikes (last year, the federal government collected the lowest share of the economy in tax revenues since 1950). “A growing body of empirical studies,” wrote the staffers, “proves that fiscal consolidation programs based predominantly or entirely on government spending reductions are far more likely to be successful” at stabilizing deficits than hiking taxes.

But the “evidence” they cite is dubious at best. Economist James Galbraith told Fernholz and Tankersley, “Much of this study relies on the growth performance of a few (very) small open economies — Sweden, Canada, New Zealand, notably — after 1994.” He added, “it’s easy to look good if you are a small country with a freshly devalued currency selling into a world boom. The ‘lessons’ will not apply to the United States, which cannot just contract domestically, devalue the dollar (sacrificing our reserve-currency position) and expect the rest of the world to bail us out by buying our exports.”Economists at the International Monetary Fund say that many of the studies cited in the Republican staffers' report are flawed. The IMF warned last year that cutting spending “typically reduces output and raises unemployment in the short term.”

Chad Stone, chief economist for the non-partisan Center for Budget and Policy priorities, added that “one of the key deficit-reduction measures in the 1990s was raising taxes on top earners, over Republican warnings that that would wreck the economy. The JEC Republican report’s claim that spending cuts are the only way to reduce the deficit and that tax increases 'are the bane of economic growth' is deja voodoo all over again.”

Why Our Standard of Living Has Stalled Out - The Real Story of Our Economy

By Les Leopold, AlterNet
March 29, 2011

Do public sector workers earn more than private sector workers? Who cares? This boneheaded question has us fighting over the crumbs. (And the answer is no -- all credible studies show that when you account for educational levels, the total compensation packages are about the same.) 

The real question is: Why have most workers seen their standard of living stall over the last generation?  

The answer is both obvious and appalling. More and more of our nation’s wealth is going to the few, while the many have seen their real wages actually decline. It’s a disgrace. 

It wasn’t always so. For more than a quarter century after WWII the fruits of America's productivity were shared with average working people, year in and year out. But what exactly was being shared? 

What’s productivity and who gets its benefits?

Productivity is a crucial economic measure of the total output of goods and services in our economy per hours worked. It’s not based on pay levels, only on hours worked in the economy as a whole. In effect, it measures how much human labor power it takes to produce everything we have. It makes a real difference to our standard of living if it takes 10,000 hours rather than 1,000 to build a house.  

Output per working hour, although imprecise, is the best way we have to measure our level of technique, organization, skill, effort and intellectual firepower. Sure, this measure has significant flaws because it doesn’t really measure our health or environmental quality. But it does indeed measure the material side of our standard of living. When productivity grows, a society has the means to solve many problems and the means to enhance working and living conditions…but only if the fruits of productivity are shared somewhat fairly.  

Productivity and who gets it is the story of the last two generations of the American middle class – one that saw a tremendous rise in its standard of living, and one that saw its way of life stall and even crumble. 

From 1947 to 1975, our output per worker hour grew by more than 75 percent. At the very same time, the real wages of the average worker rose by nearly the same amount. The rise of productivity and the rise in real wages turned our working people into the largest, most vibrant middle class in the history of the world. This dramatic upward movement in material conditions gave America its supreme bragging rights in the Cold War. No one could deny that democratic capitalism delivered the goods to working people, not just to elites.  
Until it didn’t. 

Neo-liberalism and the stalling of middle-class income

This upwardly mobile economy changed during the 1970s, and it wasn’t an accident. That’s when our nation’s leaders embarked on a series of policies that were supposed to break down stagflation and rebuild our economic miracle. We now call it neo-liberalism. That’s when we decided to unleash innovation through deregulation, especially financial deregulation. That’s when we lowered taxes on the wealthy. That’s when we pushed forward globalization. That’s when we stopped raising the minimum wage. That’s when we undercut the labor movement. All this was supposed to make the economy boom and reignite the post-WWII economic miracle. 

These policies, not the blind actions of markets, broke open the cookie jar of productivity. And there was plenty in there to take: Since 1975, productivity increased by nearly 180 percent – meaning that we almost tripled what we could produce per hour of labor. But unlike the post-WWII period, it wasn’t shared. Here are the brutal facts:
  • The average real wage of the non-supervisory production workers (which comprise 82.4 percent of total private non-farm employees) actually declined by 9 percent between 1975 and 2010.
  • Meanwhile the top 1 percent saw their share of national income rise from 8 percent in 1975 to 23.5 percent in 2005
  • More amazing still, the wage gap between the top 100 CEOs and the average worker jumped from $45 to $1 in 1970 to an unbelievable $1,723 to $1 in 2006
  • Today after the crash, financial incomes are so enormous that in 2010, John Paulson, the top hedge fund manager, earned $2.4 million an HOUR (not a misprint), and his tax rate is less than yours
I like Ike

These statistics turned me into an Eisenhower communist. I realized that our great, conservative general and president stood for policies that would never have let our nation’s productivity cookie jar get robbed. Under Ike, those earning $3 million or more (in today’s dollars) faced marginal tax rates of over 90 percent. (Yes, there were loopholes that bought the effective rates down to 70 percent. But, what’s the effective rate on the rich today? About 16 percent.) And Ike ended the Korean War. And he named and took on the military-industrial complex, which today would probably get you impeached. 

Of course, the '50s weren’t nirvana. Segregation and sexism haunted all areas of society. (And besides, we only had three TV channels and no Facebook.) But our standard of living was rising as were our expectations. We expected society to improve and this formed the basis of the explosion in social equality that swept the country, starting with the Civil Rights movement in the South under Ike’s rule.  

But after Vietnam damaged our economy and social cohesion, Democrats and Republicans alike drank the Kool Aid of neo-liberalism. A few sips and you could believe that markets would solve everything. Sip some more and you realized that you didn’t need to govern at all. You only needed to get government out of the way (while also undercutting labor laws, removing trade barriers, permitting mega-mergers, destroying Glass-Steagall, passing tighter rules on debtors, etc.). Then out you go to make some real money. It the '50s, it was fabulous to become a millionaire. By the 1980s that was chump change. Unless you’re Bernie Sanders, becoming a politician put you on the fast track to Wall Street. 

It’s not just that theft of society’s productivity is unfair. It’s also incredibly dangerous. We learned both in 1929 and in 2008 that when you combine financial deregulation with too much money in the hands of the few you get a casino, a bubble, and then a crash. In the most recent crash, the super-rich had so much capital they ran out of real investments in goods and services. So Wall Street came up with new exotic bets on subprime loans to soak up the excess capital. But the fundamental cause was that the super-rich walked off with years and years of productivity gains that should have gone to working people in the form of higher wages and benefits. Show me a worker who invests in synthetic CDOs.

Watching politicians pit public and private employees against each other is the cruelest joke of this entire crash. 

First of all, there would be no state and local budget gaps were it not for the fact that the Wall Street crash destroyed more than 8 million jobs in a matter of months. In any rational world, the Wall Street gamblers would be paying reparations for the damage they’ve caused, rather setting record profits based on our bailouts.   

Second, the richest hedge fund honchos are the glorious beneficiaries of a tax loophole that allows them to pay a maximum federal rate of 15 percent instead of 35 percent. Closing that loophole on just the 25 richest hedge fund managers produces twice the revenue as does Obama’s wage freeze on two million federal employees. 

So join me in waving Chairman Ike’s little red book. Close the hedge fund loophole and jack up the top income tax rates – way up to where they belong. Raise the minimum wage and index it permanently to inflation. Invest in infrastructure and education to put our people back to work. And stop wasting our resources on war and weapons that no one needs, or on wasteful arguments about how many teachers and cops to fire. 

Ike was a staunch capitalist and usually believed in the invisible hand of the market. But he wouldn’t be letting it give us the finger.  

Low-level radiation in three Southern states' air

Reuters - CHARLESTON, South Carolina | Mon Mar 28, 2011

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Low levels of radioactive iodine believed to be from Japan's disaster-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have been detected in the atmosphere in South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida, officials said on Monday.

There is no current threat to public safety, said Progress Energy spokesman Drew Elliot.

Monitors at Progress Energy's nuclear plants in Hartsville, South Carolina, and Crystal River, Florida, picked up low levels of radioactive iodine-131. So did Duke Energy's monitors at its two nuclear facilities in South Carolina and the plant in Huntersville, North Carolina.

"If there were radiation coming from one our own sites, we would be seeing other types of radiation than iodine-131," Elliot said. "Other nuclear stations throughout the East Coast all started picking this up within the last week. It all points to something coming from overseas.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency both say it poses no threat to public safety," he said.

Trace amounts of radioactive iodine have also turned up in rainwater samples in Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania and Washington State.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Japan on ‘Maximum Alert’ as Nuclear Crisis Deepens

Tuesday, March 29, 2011 by the Associated Press 
by Mari Yamaguchi and Yuri Kageyama

TOKYO—Japan’s prime minister insisted Tuesday that the country was on “maximum alert” to bring its nuclear crisis under control, but the spread of radiation raised concerns about the ability of experts to stabilize the crippled reactor complex.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan told parliament that Japan was grappling with its worst problems since World War II.

“This quake, tsunami and the nuclear accident are the biggest crises for Japan” in decades, said the wan but resolute Kan, dressed in one of the blue work jackets that have become ubiquitous among bureaucrats since the tsunami.

He said the crises remained unpredictable, but added: “We will continue to handle it in a state of maximum alert.”

The magnitude-9.0 offshore earthquake on March 11 triggered a tsunami that slammed minutes later into Japan’s northeast, wiping out towns and knocking out power and backup systems at the coastal Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Police said more than 11,000 bodies have been recovered, but the final death toll is expected to exceed 18,000.

Hundreds of thousands remain homeless, their homes and livelihoods destroyed. Damage could amount to $310 billion — the most expensive natural disaster on record, the government said.

Against the backdrop of the humanitarian disaster, the drama at the power plant has unfolded, with workers fighting fires, explosions, radiation scares and miscalculations in the frantic bid to prevent a complete meltdown.

The plant has been leaking radiation that has made its way into vegetables, raw milk and tap water as far away as Tokyo. Residents within 20 kilometres of the plant were ordered to leave and some nations banned the imports of food products from the Fukushima region.

Highly toxic plutonium was the latest contaminant found seeping into the soil outside the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co. said.

Safety officials said the amounts did not pose a risk to humans, but they said the finding supports suspicions that dangerously radioactive water is leaking from damaged nuclear fuel rods.

The situation is very grave,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters Tuesday. “We are doing our utmost to contain the damage.”

Kan, meanwhile, faced stinging criticism from opposition lawmakers over the handling of a nuclear disaster stretching into a third week.

“We cannot let you handle the crisis,” lawmaker Yosuke Isozaki said in parliament. “We cannot let you be in charge of Japan’s crisis management.”

Edano admitted Tuesday that Japanese safety standards were not enough to protect the complex against the tsunami’s power.

“Our preparedness was not sufficient,” Edano told reporters. “When the current crisis is over, we must examine the accident closely and thoroughly review” safety standards.

An AP investigation following the tsunami found that TEPCO officials had dismissed scientific evidence and geological history that indicated that a massive earthquake — and subsequent tsunami — was far more likely than they believed.

The plant was pounded by water far higher and stronger than the complex was prepared to endure, the investigation found.

The urgent mission to stabilize the Fukushima plant has been fraught with setbacks.

Workers succeeded last week in reconnecting some parts of the plant to the power grid.

But as they pumped water into units to cool the reactors down, they discovered pools of contaminated water in numerous spots, including the basements of several buildings and in tunnels outside them.

The contaminated water has been emitting radiation exposures more than four times the amount the government considers safe for workers and must be pumped out before electricity can be restored to the cooling system.

That has left officials struggling with two crucial but sometimes-contradictory efforts: pumping in water to keep the fuel rods cool and pumping out contaminated water and safely storing it.

Nuclear safety official Hidehiko Nishiyama said cooling the reactors had taken precedence over concerns about leakage.

“The removal of the contaminated water is the most urgent task now, and hopefully we can adjust the amount of cooling water going in,” he said, adding that workers were building sandbag dikes to keep contaminated water from seeping into the soil outside.

The discovery of plutonium, released from fuel rods only when temperatures are extremely high, confirms the severity of the damage, Nishiyama said.

Plutonium is a highly toxic substance which breaks down very slowly, remaining dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

“If you inhale it, it’s there and it stays there forever,” said Alan Lockwood, a professor of Neurology and Nuclear Medicine at the University at Buffalo and a member of the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an advocacy group.