Friday, April 20, 2012

United State of Emergency: Outlawing Dissent

Under a president deemed worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, the will of the authoritarian tyrant caste is being written permanently into American law.

H.R. 347/S1794, otherwise known as the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011,” passed unanimously in the House and receiving only three negative votes in the Senate, makes it a felony—a crime defined by the federal government as punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year—to “enter or remain in” an area designated as “restricted.” The law makes no exception for demonstrators who unknowingly gather outside of federally-designated free-speech zones; you may not have willfully or knowingly done anything other than exercise your free speech and free assembly rights, but if you “in fact” “[impede] or [disrupt] the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions,” you’re going to prison. And since Obama’s ink dried on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 and America was declared a battleground, you could be held indefinitely.


United State of Emergency: Outlawing Dissent
By Zakk Flash
During the 1967 Six Day War, a series of strict emergency laws were enacted across the Arab World, most notably in Egypt and Syria. Police powers became absolute while constitutional rights were suspended; any non-governmental political activity such as street demonstrations, rallies, protests, and organization of dissident political groups was quickly crushed by the iron fist of dictators. The laws were called temporary defensive measures, emergency acts that would be lifted once the nation was safe again.

The laws were simply left in place. The rulers of Egypt and Syria, content with their power, decided to concede nothing to their citizens. Tens of thousands of people found themselves imprisoned for extended periods of time, simply for demanding the principles of democracy already encoded in their constitutions or being critical of the government. The emergency laws provided these autocratic regimes with the authority to force their will onto to their people without opposition.

Under a president deemed worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, the will of the authoritarian tyrant caste is being written permanently into American law.

H.R. 347/S1794, otherwise known as the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011,” passed unanimously in the House and receiving only three negative votes in the Senate, makes it a felony—a crime defined by the federal government as punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year—to “enter or remain in” an area designated as “restricted.” The law makes no exception for demonstrators who unknowingly gather outside of federally-designated free-speech zones; you may not have willfully or knowingly done anything other than exercise your free speech and free assembly rights, but if you “in fact” “[impede] or [disrupt] the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions,” you’re going to prison. And since Obama’s ink dried on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 and America was declared a battleground, you could be held indefinitely.

These laws would have made Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Civil Rights luminaries felons subject to indefinite detention.

When, and if, demonstrators get released from incarceration, they will continue to suffer the long-term legal consequences termed by prisoner-rights advocates as “civil death.” Felons are barred from multitude vocations, associating with certain people or even living in particular areas, ineligible to serve on a jury or receive government assistance, and even denied the right to elect their own public servants. As of 2008, over 5.3 million people in the United States are currently left without the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement. A sure-fire way of controlling political opposition is to deny it the ability to participate in political life.

Restricted areas spoken of in HR347, interpreted under existing law and court precedents, include any “building or grounds where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting” and “a building or grounds so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance.” This definition, kept intentionally broad and vague, allows anti-protest measures to be applied at the whim of the political elite. Already in Chicago, Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel presides over crippling restrictions on public activity brought as a result of the upcoming NATO conference—and the simultaneous anti-globalization protests—on May 20-21st, 2012.

While the laws were called a temporary response to the G8 summit taking place in Chicago alongside the NATO conference, the Obama White House made a last minute decision to move G8 to the presidential compound at Camp David, a restricted military installation. The laws in Chicago will remain. Draconian laws enacted in the name of national defense in the Other Civil War are nothing new.

On September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a national emergency due to the terrorist attacks of three days earlier. The National Emergencies Act of 1976 requires the President to renew this state of emergency on an annual basis if he wishes it to remain in effect; Bush renewed it every year he was in office and Obama has continued the trend.

The United States has been in a declared state of national emergency for the last 11 years.

According to Harold Relyea, a specialist working for the American government in the Congressional Research Service, the president “may seize property, organize and control the means of production, seize commodities, assign military forces abroad, institute martial law, seize and control all transportation and communication, regulate the operation of private enterprise, restrict travel, and, in a variety of ways, control the lives of United States citizens.”

Combined with Patriot Act measures enacted by Congress under George W. Bush and extended by Obama, these laws provide a framework of surveillance and control only dreamed of in some Orwellian nightmare.
The nature of neoliberal globalization virtually ensures that fascist cartels will force their monopolies onto unwilling nations or unknowing populations; plurilateral agreements like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, are created in secret by leaders of a select handful of the wealthiest countries and designed with the intention of forcing them upon developing nations. ACTA includes provisions that profoundly restrict fundamental rights and freedoms, most notably the freedom of expression and communication privacy. It also severely restricts generic drug creation and use in underdeveloped countries. They are nonnegotiable.
Kader Arif, the European parliament’s rapporteur for ACTA, resigned from his position in January 2012 denouncing the treaty "in the strongest possible manner” for having “no inclusion of civil society organizations, a lack of transparency from the start of the negotiations, repeated postponing of the signature of the text without an explanation being ever given, [and] exclusion of the EU Parliament’s demands that were expressed on several occasions in [the] assembly," concluding with his intent to "send a strong signal and alert the public opinion about this unacceptable situation” and refusal to “take part in this masquerade."

As with other undemocratic measures being passed around the world,  HR 347/S1794 is a ruthless and reactionary law designed to eliminate political and economic dissent.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It is little wonder that HR 347/S1794 has been called by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), one of only three members of Congress to vote against the bill, the “First Amendment Rights Eradication Act.” While the NDAA seeks to remove your 4th, 5th and 6th Amendment rights, this newest attack on self-determination is aimed at the heart of 1st Amendment rights including Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly, and Freedom to Petition.

The Supreme Court ruled in Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 318 (1988),  that protesting outside an embassy was worthy of Constitutional protection, recognizing that freedom of speech, even if it may interfere with normal governmental activity “reflects a ‘profound national commitment’ to the principle” and “‘debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.’”

While the right to free speech, assembly, and the petition of grievances is enshrined in the US Constitution, the right of government to conduct its business without dissent is not.
In 1783, twenty-four year old William Pitt, then the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was petitioned to change the law based on the “necessity” to save the East India Company from bankruptcy. His reply was brief.

“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”
The arguments of a tyrannical Congress would have you believe that HR 347/S1794 is a necessity, that demonstrations against the actions of government and business cause it undue hardship. While the government’s ability to permissibly restrict expressive conduct is limited by reasonable time, place, and manner regulations, the restrictions must, by law, be narrowly tailored to prevent unconstitutional adversity.

HR 347/S1794 flagrantly violates the First Amendment, since it is a broad and sweeping restriction based particularly on political speech in a public forum and not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.
Of course, the crypto-fascists in Congress will argue that protecting themselves from the sight of the “unwashed masses” is a compelling state interest. They wouldn’t be incorrect. The nature of power is self-preserving; by surrounding themselves with a no-free-speech zone, the State can continue its self-congratulatory paternalism, content in the false knowledge that they’re “looking out for the little guy.”

The unconstitutional socio-political deprivation embedded in these authoritarian anti-Occupy laws would arguably be unfeasible without an almost complete blackout by mass media.
Media and communication play a central, perhaps even a defining, role in the ability of police-state measures to pass. Where is the outrage over the state of emergency laws that have gripped this country for almost a dozen years? How can unelected bankers wrest power from leaders in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, while the rest of the world fumbles with “austerity measures” to save their own necks? Consolidation of the global commercial media system can be easily linked to deregulation in the name of neoliberal “progress.”That deregulation—and the resulting monopoly that keeps alternate news sources like Democracy Now! and Al Jazeera English off the air—has allowed only capitalist rhetoric to flourish.

The business interests that control the mainstream media are the same that control the United States government. They will allow no dissent as they continue their war on liberty.
American anarchist Noam Chomsky, long known for his critiques of U.S. policy, has often written about the “manufacture of consent,” something propaganda maven (and Freud nephew) Edward Bernays happily called the art of manipulating people. In his criticism of the global commercial media system, Chomsky posits that mass media, as a profit-driven institution, tends to serve and further the agendas and interests of dominant, elite groups over the social well-being of entire societies. His writing firmly rejects the kinds of censorship that HR 347/S1794 proposes.

“If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”
What does this mean for us? Simply put, this is not a battle of the Left versus the moderate Right. This is a direct attack on the United States Constitution, a charter written expressly to limit the government’s power over its citizens.

This is a war of the authoritarian oligarchy upon the principles of democracy.
Around the world, the working and middle classes have risen up against the duplicity of their governments, the engineering of political realities by corporate interests, and the social stratification enforced by capitalist exploitation. In the United States, both Occupy Wall Street and the libertarian wing of the Tea Party have demonstrated against the excesses of the US federal government. These protests, however, have been relatively small compared to the injustice being perpetrated upon the American people.

Organized labor has tried to make up for their decline in membership and economic power in recent years by abandoning any pretense of non-partisan organizing and pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars of member dues money into the campaigns of Democrats. The opponents of organized labor are allowed to paint it as a partisan special interest group in the pocket of the Democratic Party. This has proven to be the case for far too long. The Democrats, in turn, have taken labor’s vote as a matter of course and done little to advance the political agenda of the working class. The vast majority of workers who remain outside of traditional unions see no use in joining one; management sees suppression of organization as just another cost of doing business. A return of radical unionization, exemplified by the Industrial Workers of the World call to organize the entire working class into One Big Union to abolish the wage system, would do much to stop the pitting of worker against worker, allowing for people over profit, cooperation over competition. The Preamble to the IWW Constitution still reflects this.

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”
Organized labor can, and should be, a force to reckon with. It cannot do so, however, as long as it continues to blindly support a party that has forgotten the farmers, laborers, labor unions, and minorities that have made up its traditional base. Regardless of whether organized labor feels it must undergo a transitional program from capitalism to participatory economics, it must divorce itself from unwavering allegiance to the Democrats. Labor would be more effective supporting individual politicians who promote a working class agenda, whether they are Green Party, Libertarians, Social Democrats, or independents.

Civil libertarian organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Amendment Coalition, and the Center for Constitutional Rights have a long history of defending the inalienable rights retained by—as opposed to privileges granted to—citizens of the United States under the Constitution. As nonpartisan organizations, they have the ability to denounce legislators of any camp for transgressions of civil liberties. It is expected that they will use test cases to undermine the illegal laws being propagated by the political elite; as part of a diversity of tactic, these kinds of cases should be applauded, even as the larger movement forges ahead with broader goals. Embracing different tactics allows radical proponents of liberty and democracy to work with mainstream advocacy groups to advance our larger strategy in accordance with our common goals. The Saint Paul Principles provide a framework for that cooperation without sectarian breakdown.

The fiscal conservatives, moderates, and libertarians who make up the Republican base have seen the party of Lincoln hijacked by social conservatives like Leo Strauss, who said the “crisis of our time” was a “permissive egalitarianism” embedded in liberal democracy and neoconservatives like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who prompted Reagan to give financial and material support to pro-Western authoritarian regimes.

Libertarians and fiscal conservatives have little in common with the state-enforced conservative social policies pushed by the religious right wing that seems to dominate the Republican Party. The interventionist war machine driven by neoconservative thought—to say nothing of the government intrusion into privacy via the Patriot Act, REAL ID, and NSA domestic spying program—runs contrary to principles of state sovereignty and self-determination held in high esteem by traditional conservatism, principles that Thomas Paine instilled into American body politic under the phrase “Common Sense.”

As encroachments on personal privacy and individual liberties continue, both the Democratic and Republican parties have forgotten their base: the working and middle class.
Communist Karl Marx borrowed the term “proletariat” as a description for the working class from the Ancient Roman Empire, whose rulers believed the only contribution the masses could make to Roman society was the ability to raise children to colonize new territories. The crypto-fascist authority today, encompassing both the Democratic and Republican Parties, continues this view; to capitalists, workers are not individuals but only the rungs of a ladder designed to lift them higher on the pyramid scheme of capitalist economics.

The time has come for the American middle and working classes to join their comrades in the campaign for liberty currently sweeping the globe.
H.R. 347/S1794, rightly nicknamed the “First Amendment Rights Eradication Act,” has been passed by both chambers of Congress. It now sits on President Obama’s desk, awaiting his signature. If his capitulation to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012—and its promise of indefinite detention—is any indication of his future action, he’ll sign it.

This issue transcends traditional party politics. Political opposition will be outlawed immediately. Pro-life rallies will effectively end with ban on public demonstrations, as well as pro-choice demonstrations. The government will not hesitate to prohibit any and all organizations it defines as dissenting or subversive, including alternative parties, labor unions, veterans’ associations, and others. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party can both kiss the promise of reforming government goodbye.

Congress has already declared America a battleground. They now want to silence us. It is time to bring the battle home.

‘Anonymous’ hacker: Legalize marijuana for the cure

By Stephen C. Webster - RAW Story
Friday, April 20, 2012

Heroes to some and villians to others, the Anonymous” movement has come to symbolize much more than just a group of rogue hackers. But far from breaking into computer networks run by rogue governments or multinational corporations, as they’ve come to be known for, the online hacktivists now have their sights set on a different human rights issue entirely: marijuana prohibition.

Members of the hacking collective, who were at the epicenter of planning and promoting “Occupy Wall Street” last year, announced earlier this month that April 20, 2012 would mark the beginning of an official “Anonymous” push-back against America’s drug laws.

Speaking to Raw Story this week, a person claiming to be a member of “Anonymous,” who watched an attack on Sony’s website from behind the scenes but did not participate, claimed responsibility for the group’s new “OpCannabis” campaign, explaining that the operation is determined to throw the collective’s weight behind drug reform.

After launching a pitch for “OpCannabis” over one year ago, the hacker said that their “PR text evolved into a video,” which was “translated into German by parties unknown,” but then it fizzled.

“[S]omething was missing,” the source explained. “For some reason my inbox wasn’t blowing up and only a few hundred people seemed to show interest. This may or may not have had something to do with AnonNews deciding not to carry our press release. Thankfully this has since been resolved.”

Now that the leading “Anonymous” news account has tuned into the marijuana campaign and began circulating the latest “OpCannabis” updates, it has gone global.

Members of “Anonymous” plan to get outside and be vocal on Friday during nationwide protests against America’s drug policies. Some may even be following up with more computer hacking and website defacement. And just earlier this month, “OpCannabis” got its own website and Twitter account, connecting hundreds of “Anonymous” activists who are now sharing ideas to foster the push-back against prohibition.

But “OpCannabis” isn’t designed to be a hacking spree, Raw Story’s nameless source explained. “Anyone I’ve found that is involved with marijuana activism, I’ve told that they can e-mail any and all materials to the and I’ll sort through it and get it on the site.”

“We ask you to please educate yourself on its many benefits and share these benefits with your sick or injured friends,” an “OpCannabis” press release implores. “We all know somebody that has cancer or diabetes and cannabis has helped or cured both and many other disorders! Anonymous will begin its support for the legalization of cannabis on 4/20/12. So please show your support by educating yourselves and making your profile pic or timeline banner on your social services accts green or 420 friendly.”

They’ve also asked that each chapter of the remaining “Occupy” groups around the country participate in marijuana-related events, pointing out the billions already spent just this year to incarcerate tens of thousands of marijuana prisoners around the country.

Raw Story’s source specifically pointed at the government’s hypocrisy in declaring that the plant has no medical value when pharmaceutical companies are practically begging for permits to research new marijuana-based drugs that address a whole host of ailments, including possible cures for several types of cancer.

“I think the Internet is an absolutely great medium for getting uncensored information,” Raw Story’s nameless source explained. “I’ve read countless stories of doctors outright denying that cannabis has any medical value, when the previously terminally ill cancer patients with six weeks to live are sitting in front of them cancer free two years later. I think through accurate and scientifically valid examination of cannabis and CB1/CB2 receptors, CBD and THC we can prove without a doubt what so many doctors don’t want you to know.”

Cures don’t make money,” the “Anonymous” member concluded. “Half-assed and defective cures keep you dependent on the medical industry and its artificial products and keep you buying month after month until you die. They don’t want you cured. And that’s the sad reality.”

This video was published to YouTube on April 10, 2012.

Shocking Conflict of Interest: Private Water Companies Partner With Fracking Lobby

Selling water to drillers, two of the nation's biggest private water utilities may soon profit from treating the wastewater.

By Sarah Pavlus, American Independent News Network
Posted on April 19, 2012

Two of the country's largest private water utility companies are participants in a massive lobbying effort to expand controversial shale gas drilling -- a heavy industrial activity that promises to enrich the water companies but may also put drinking water resources at risk.
The situation -- which some watchdogs describe as a troubling conflict of interest -- underscores the complex issues raised by the nationwide push to privatize infrastructure and services like water, prisons, and roads.

The water companies -- American Water and Aqua America -- are leading drinking water suppliers in Pennsylvania, where drilling is booming. They also sell water to gas companies -- which use a drilling technique that requires massive amounts of water -- and have expressed interest in treating drilling wastewater, a potentially lucrative opportunity.

These investor-owned, publicly traded water utility companies are also dues-paying "associate members" of the gas industry's powerful Marcellus Shale Coalition, a fact confirmed by coalition spokesman Travis Windle, who says associate members pay $15,000 annually in dues. "Our associate members are really the backbone of the industry," adds Windle.

Both water companies serve millions of people across the country -- Aqua America operates in 11 states and American Water in more than 30.

The coalition, which is led by major gas producers, contends that "responsible development of natural gas" will bolster the region's economy while providing an important source of domestic energy. It has reported over $2 million in Pennsylvania lobbying expenditures since 2010.

Aqua America joined the coalition in 2010 and Pennsylvania American Water -- a subsidiary of American Water -- joined in 2011, according to the coalition's quarterly magazine, which publishes a full member list in each issue.

Shale gas drillers use a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to extract gas from the Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania. The controversial technique forces millions of gallons of water -- mixed with sand and chemicals -- into the ground to crack the shale rock and release gas. In addition to the potential risks posed by actual fracturing, the process produces large amounts of toxic wastewater that can be difficult to dispose of safely.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting a congressionally-mandated study "to investigate the potential adverse impact that hydraulic fracturing may have on water quality and public health." Pennsylvania is home to three of the seven sites selected for the nationwide study.

Separately, the EPA is testing the water of some Pennsylvania residents who say that nearby gas drilling contaminated their wells. According to the EPA, early test results indicate the water is safe to drink, however, some environmentalists disagree with that analysis.

In the meantime, the water companies are selling water to the drillers while calling for fracking to be done in an environmentally responsible manner. In a presentation to investors last month, American Water stated that it is "realizing additional revenues from water sales to drilling companies while remaining vigilant in protecting our water sources." In the presentation, the company noted it is "currently selling water to gas drillers at 34 distribution points in Pennsylvania," and that it "sold 250.4 million gallons of water to gas drillers from January through December of 2011, producing $1.6 million in revenues."

(Some public water utilities sell to drillers too, but no public utilities are part of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.)

American Water spokesman Terry Maenza says the company's support for environmental protection is unchanged by its role in the shale coalition and that it is also a member of numerous environmental groups.
"By the nature of our business, we will continue to be stewards of the environment, ensuring water source protection," says Maenza.

The company isn't currently in the drilling wastewater treatment business, according to Maenza, though during a quarterly earnings call last year, American Water CEO Jeff Sterba told investors, "We are very definitely looking and working in the wastewater treatment area." Maenza declined to comment on any specific initiatives. Aqua America executive Karl Kyriss says his company's involvement in the coalition helps protect water resources.

"By participating, we can have some direct input into the group that is looking to support development of the Marcellus Shale," says Kyriss. "But we are very much committed that it be done in an environmentally sensitive and protected manner. And we think we can do that better from the inside than just sort of watching what happens."

Aqua America is aggressively positioning itself to take advantage of what CEO Nick DeBenedictis has described to investors as a "water-energy nexus that could have a positive impact on the future of our company." In recent years, the company has made sizeable acquisitions in Texas and Ohio -- states that, like Pennsylvania, are home to large shale gas plays -- and is also building a pipeline in Pennsylvania to supply water to drillers.

DeBenedictis believes the pipeline will ease the wear and tear on roads and the environment currently caused by trucks carrying water to wells. Recently, however, that pipeline has come under fire from local anti-drilling activists because the project will displace dozens of residents from a mobile home park.

Like American Water, Aqua America is not currently in the drilling wastewater treatment business, but may expand into that market in the future.

Some environmental advocates see potential conflicts between the interests of the private water industry and the interests of drinking water consumers.

"If American Water and Aqua America wanted to ensure that their water supplies were protected, they would support a national ban on hydraulic fracturing for shale gas," argues Mary Grant, a researcher at Food and Water Watch, which has reported on Aqua America's ties to the coalition. "But, instead of acting on the precautionary principle, they are paying thousands of dollars a year to an industry coalition that advocates for shale gas development, despite the risks to water quality."

"We are concerned that these relationships encourage investor owned water utilities to endorse shale gas development despite its risk to public water supplies," Grant says. Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, adds, "Sometimes the interests of private ownership are inconsistent with the concept of preserving our water resources in the public trust for future generations. And the potential clashing of those interests is why these questions have been raised about whether for-profit companies ought to be running public water supplies."  

Our Chemical Cocktail Evaluated in New Report

Friday, April 20, 2012 by Civil Eatsby Paula Crossfield

When it comes to the chemicals used in food packaging, there is much we still don’t know. After a recent U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) decision last month to not put further restrictions on bisphenol-A (BPA), a new report today in the Washington Post takes a closer look at studies that reveal that such endocrine-distrupting chemicals are not only ubiquitous, they might also be harmful at much lower doses than previously thought.

The FDA allows around 3,000 chemicals, including BPA and phthalates–a family of chemicals used in lubricants and solvents and to make polyvinyl chloride pliable–at low doses, long considering them additives though they migrate from the packaging instead of being purposefully added by the food manufacturer. But these chemicals are notoriously hard to trace, and have not been studied for their cumulative effects.

“Finding out which chemicals might have seeped into your groceries is nearly impossible, given the limited information collected and disclosed by regulators, the scientific challenges of this research and the secrecy of the food and packaging industries, which view their components as proprietary information,” writes Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, who wrote this story in collaboration with the Food & Evironment Reporting Network. “Although scientists are learning more about the pathways of these substances–and their potential effect on health–there is an enormous debate among scientists, policymakers and industry experts about what levels are safe.”

What has scientists worried is the fact that endocrine disrupters like these interfere with the body’s natural hormone system. Animals studies on BPA, for example, have found that doses of the chemical below the FDA-approved threshold administered during critical stages of development can effect behavior, breast and prostate cells, and brain structure and chemistry. According to recent studies, around 90 percent of Americans have BPA inside their bodies.

Freinkel explains how plastic food packaging is a major source of these potentially harmful chemicals. Other studies have shown phthalates passing into food from processing equipment and food-prep gloves, gaskets and seals on non-plastic containers, inks used on labels–which can permeate packaging–and even the plastic film used in agriculture.

The report highlights an upcoming study that found a particular phthalate, called DEHP, in many of the 72 different grocery items evaluated. Studies have associated low-dose exposure to this chemical with male reproductive disorders, thyroid dysfunction, and subtle behavioral changes.
Last month, the FDA denied a petition to ban BPA, saying in a statement that while “some studies have raised questions as to whether BPA may be associated with a variety of health effects, there remain serious questions about these studies, particularly as they relate to humans and the public health impact.”

You can read the full report here on the Food & Environment Reporting Network’s Web site, which also features additional reporting on the topic.

Chinese Melamine or American Vioxx: Half a million dead and no questions asked

In contrasting China and America, pundits often cite our free and independent media as one of our greatest strengths, together with the tremendous importance which our society places upon individual American lives. For us, a single wrongful death can sometimes provoke weeks of massive media coverage and galvanize the nation into corrective action, while life remains cheap in China, a far poorer land of over a billion people, ruled by a ruthless Communist Party eager to bury its mistakes. But an examination of two of the greatest public-health scandals of the last few years casts serious doubt on this widespread belief.  
What follows is an extraordinary report by Ron Unz, publisher of the American Conernative, part of his larger feature just published by the TAC,  “China’s Rise, America’s Fall. “ Ron makes the charge that perhaps 500,000 or more premature American deaths may have resulted from Vioxx, a figure substantially larger than the 3,468 deaths of named individuals acknowledged by Merck during the settlement of its lawsuit. And almost no one among our political or media elites seems to know or care about this possibility. 
Ron writes to us : “I remember back in 2005, I was reading my morning newspapers, as I always do, and noticed those tiny, buried items about the unprecedented drop in the American death rate.  Hmm I said, I wonder if that might have anything to do with all those other stories about that deadly drug recently taken off the market and all the resulting lawsuits.  I never got around to looking into it, and apparently nobody in the media did either.  
“Then, a few weeks ago, I was talking to Dan McCarthy the TAC Editor, complaining to him about how totally incompetent and dishonest the MSM was, and mentioned the totally ignored 2005 mortality drop as an excellent example.  He’d obviously never heard of it and had also completely forgotten about the Vioxx scandal, but said I really should think about writing something up.  So I decided to combine it with some of those other things about China I’d been complaining that the MSM tended to distort or ignore.  
“When I went to the CDC website, it only took me about 10 minutes to get the public data confirming that just as I’d guessed, Vioxx had probably killed around 500,000 Americans, but virtually nobody in the whole country knew or cared.  It’s a little like if a meteor destroyed Pittsburgh and killed everyone there, but the media never reported it, would anyone really notice?  From a philosophical perspective, if nobody knows about it, did it even really happen?” 
First, consider the details of the Chinese infant formula scandal of 2008. Unscrupulous businessmen had discovered they could save money by greatly diluting their milk products, then adding a plastic chemical compound called melamine to raise the apparent protein content back to normal levels. Nearly 300,000 babies throughout China had suffered urinary problems, with many hundreds requiring lengthy hospitalization for kidney stones. Six died. A wave of popular outrage swept past the controlled media roadblocks and initial government excuses, and soon put enormous pressure on Chinese officials to take forceful action against the wrongdoers.
China’s leaders may not be democratically elected, but they pay close attention to strong popular sentiment. Once pressed, they quickly launched a national police investigation which led to a series of arrests and uncovered evidence that this widespread system of food adulteration had been protected by bribe-taking government officials. Long prison sentences were freely handed out and a couple of the guiltiest culprits were eventually tried and executed for their role, measures that gradually assuaged popular anger. Indeed, the former head of the Chinese FDA had been executed for corruption in late 2007 under similar circumstances.
Throughout these events, American media coverage was extensive, with numerous front-page stories in our leading newspapers. Journalists discovered that similar methods of dangerous chemical adulteration had been used to produce Chinese pet food for export, and many family dogs in America had suffered or died as a result. With heavy coverage on talk radio and cable news shows, phrases such as “Chinese baby formula” or “Chinese pet food” became angry slurs, and there was talk of banning whole categories of imports from a country whose product safety standards were obviously so far below those found in Western societies. The legitimate concerns of ordinary Americans were fanned by local media coverage that sometimes bordered on the hysterical.
However, the American media reaction had been quite different during an earlier health scandal much closer to home.
In September 2004, Merck, one of America’s largest pharmaceutical companies, suddenly announced that it was voluntarily recalling Vioxx, its popular anti-pain medication widely used to treat arthritis-related ailments. This abrupt recall came just days after Merck discovered that a top medical journal was about to publish a massive study by an FDA investigator indicating that the drug in question greatly increased the risk of fatal heart attacks and strokes and had probably been responsible for at least 55,000 American deaths during the five years it had been on the market.
Within weeks of the recall, journalists discovered that Merck had found strong evidence of the potentially fatal side-effects of this drug even before its initial 1999 introduction, but had ignored these worrisome indicators and avoided additional testing, while suppressing the concerns of its own scientists. Boosted by a television advertising budget averaging a hundred million dollars per year, Vioxx soon became one of Merck’s most lucrative products, generating over $2 billion in yearly revenue. Merck had also secretly ghostwritten dozens of the published research studies emphasizing the beneficial aspects of the drug and encouraging doctors to widely prescribe it, thus transforming science into marketing support. Twenty-five million Americans were eventually prescribed Vioxx as an aspirin-substitute thought to produce fewer complications.
Although the Vioxx scandal certainly did generate several days of newspaper headlines and intermittently returned to the front pages as the resulting lawsuits gradually moved through our judicial system, the coverage still seemed scanty relative to the number of estimated fatalities, which matched America’s total losses in the Vietnam War. In fact, the media coverage often seemed considerably less than that later accorded to the Chinese infant food scandal, which had caused just a handful of deaths on the other side of the world.
The circumstances of this case were exceptionally egregious, with many tens of thousands of American deaths due to the sale of a highly lucrative but sometimes fatal drug, whose harmful effects had long been known to its manufacturer. But there is no sign that criminal charges were ever considered.
A massive class-action lawsuit dragged its way through the courts for years, eventually being settled for $4.85 billion in 2007, with almost half the money going to the trial lawyers. Merck shareholders also paid large sums to settle various other lawsuits and government penalties and cover the heavy legal costs of fighting all of these cases. But the loss of continuing Vioxx sales represented the greatest financial penalty of all, which provides a disturbing insight into the cost-benefit calculations behind the company’s original cover-up. When the scandal broke, Merck’s stock price collapsed, and there was a widespread belief that the company could not possibly survive, especially after evidence of a deliberate corporate conspiracy surfaced. Instead, Merck’s stock price eventually reached new heights in 2008 and today is just 15 percent below where it stood just before the disaster.
Furthermore, individuals make decisions rather than corporate entities, and none of the individuals behind Merck’s deadly decisions apparently suffered any serious consequences. The year after the scandal unfolded, Merck’s long-time CEO resigned and was replaced by one of his top lieutenants, but he retained the $50 million in financial compensation he had received over the previous five years, compensation greatly boosted by lucrative Vioxx sales. Senior FDA officials apologized for their lack of effective oversight and promised to do better in the future. American media conglomerates quietly mourned their loss of heavy Vioxx advertising, but continued selling the same airtime to Merck and its rivals for the marketing of other, replacement drugs, while their investigative arms soon focused on the horrors of tainted Chinese infant food and the endemic corruption of Chinese society.
This story of serious corporate malfeasance largely forgiven and forgotten by government and media is depressing enough, but it leaves out a crucial factual detail that seems to have almost totally escaped public notice. The year after Vioxx had been pulled from the market, the New York Times and other major media outlets published a minor news item, generally buried near the bottom of their back pages, which noted that American death rates had suddenly undergone a striking and completely unexpected decline.
The headline of the short article that ran in the April 19, 2005 edition of USA Today was typical: “USA Records Largest Drop in Annual Deaths in at Least 60 Years.” During that one year, American deaths had fallen by 50,000 despite the growth in both the size and the age of the nation’s population. Government health experts were quoted as being greatly “surprised” and “scratching [their] heads” over this strange anomaly, which was led by a sharp drop in fatal heart attacks.
On April 24, 2005, the New York Times ran another of its long stories about the continuing Vioxx controversy, disclosing that Merck officials had knowingly concealed evidence that their drug greatly increased the risk of heart-related fatalities. But the Times journalist made no mention of the seemingly inexplicable drop in national mortality rates that had occurred once the drug was taken off the market, although the news had been reported in his own paper just a few days earlier.
A cursory examination of the most recent 15 years worth of national mortality data provided on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offers some intriguing clues to this mystery. We find the largest rise in American mortality rates occurred in 1999, the year Vioxx was introduced, while the largest drop occurred in 2004, the year it was withdrawn. Vioxx was almost entirely marketed to the elderly, and these substantial changes in national death-rate were completely concentrated within the 65-plus population. The FDA studies had proven that use of Vioxx led to deaths from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, and these were exactly the factors driving the changes in national mortality rates.
The impact of these shifts was not small. After a decade of remaining roughly constant, the overall American death rate began a substantial decline in 2004, soon falling by approximately 5 percent, despite the continued aging of the population. This drop corresponds to roughly 100,000 fewer deaths per year. The age-adjusted decline in death rates was considerably greater.
Patterns of cause and effect cannot easily be proven. But if we hypothesize a direct connection between the recall of a class of very popular drugs proven to cause fatal heart attacks and other deadly illnesses with an immediate drop in the national rate of fatal heart attacks and other deadly illnesses, then the statistical implications are quite serious. Perhaps 500,000 or more premature American deaths may have resulted from Vioxx, a figure substantially larger than the 3,468 deaths of named individuals acknowledged by Merck during the settlement of its lawsuit. And almost no one among our political or media elites seems to know or care about this possibility. A recent Wall Street Journal column even called for relaxing FDA restrictions aimed at avoiding “rare adverse events,” which had been imposed after the discovery of “unanticipated side effects of high-profile drugs like Vioxx.”
There are obvious mitigating differences between these two national responses. The Chinese victims were children, and their sufferings from kidney stones and other ailments were directly linked to the harmful compounds that they had ingested. By contrast, the American victims were almost all elderly, and there was no means of determining whether a particular heart attack had been caused by Vioxx or other factors; the evidence implicating the drug was purely statistical, across millions of patients. Furthermore, since most of the victims were anyway nearing the end of their lives, the result was more an acceleration of the inevitable rather than cutting short an entire young life, and sudden fatal heart attacks are hardly the most unpleasant forms of death.
But against these important factors we must consider the raw numbers involved. American journalists seemed to focus more attention on a half-dozen fatalities in China than they did on the premature deaths of as many as 500,000 of their fellow American citizens.
The inescapable conclusion is that in today’s world and in the opinion of our own media, American lives are quite cheap, unlike those in China.

Unplugging Americans From The Matrix

Where Life is Regarded as Cheap
Americans, the British, and Western Europeans are accustomed to thinking of themselves as the representatives of freedom, democracy, and morality in the world. The West passes judgment on the rest of the world as if the West is God and the rest of the world are barbarians in need of chastisement, invasion, and occupation. As readers know, from time to time I raise questions about the validity of the West’s extreme hubris.

China is often a country about which Washington’s moralists get on their high horse.

However, China’s “authoritarian” government is actually more responsive to its people than America’s “elected democratic” government. Moreover, however incomplete on paper the civil liberties of China’s people, the Chinese government has not declared that it can violate with impunity whatever rights Chinese citizens have. And it is not China that is running torture prisons all over the globe.

For some time I have had in mind a realistic comparison of the two countries instead of the standard propagandistic comparison, but Ron Unz has beat me to the task twice). Unz provides a chance for an education. Don’t miss it.

Unz has done an excellent job. Moreover, he cleverly understates the case for China and overstates the case for America so as not to unduly arouse the flag-wavers. Nevertheless, the conclusion is clear: The Chinese are less threatened by their “extractive elites” than Americans are by their counterparts.

Moreover, it is America’s, not China’s, extractive elites who are bombing, occupying, and droning other countries. As the bumper sticker says, “Be nice to America or we will bring democracy to your country.”

As for economic management, there is no comparison. Unz reports that during the past three decades China has achieved the most rapid rate of economic development in human history. Moreover, most of the new income has flowed into the pockets of Chinese workers, not to the one percent. While American real median incomes have been stagnant for decades, incomes for Chinese workers have doubled every decade for three decades. A recent World Bank report attributes more than 100 percent of the drop in global poverty rates to China’s rise.

In the last decade China’s industrial output quadrupled. China now produces more automobiles than America and Japan combined and accounted for 85 percent of the increase in the world’s production of cars in the past decade.

In 1978 the American economy was 15 times larger than China’s. In the next few years China’s GDP is expected to exceed that of the US.

This is heady stuff providing astonishing details of how poorly Americans are served by their elites.

America has failed, because political elites represent only the powerful special interests that write the country’s laws in exchange for funding the political campaigns of “lawmakers.” To divert attention from their failures, American elites point fingers at external scapegoats. China, for example, is accused of manipulating its currency. As Unz says, the scapegoating is political theater designed for the ignorant and gullible.

America’s economists, or most of them, have so prostituted themselves that propaganda has become wisdom. Most Americans believe that if China would simply let the value of its currency rise more rapidly relative to the dollar, America’s economic woes would be at an end. It is beyond belief that any economist could think that Americans with stagnant and declining incomes would be made better off by a sharp rise in the prices of goods manufactured in China on which Americans are dependent, or that the US dollar’s role as reserve currency, the main source of American power, could survive such a manifestation of Chinese economic superiority.

Americans associate lawlessness with unaccountable governments and view China’s government as unaccountable. However, Unz points out that it is the Bush/Obama Regime that has declared itself to be unaccountable to both US and international law.

The demise of the War Powers Act and the Geneva Conventions, and the asserted power of the executive to imprison without trial or charges or to assassinate any American whom the executive thinks might be a “national-security threat” are indicative of a total police state masquerading as an accountable democracy. In America six-year old little girls who misbehave in school are handcuffed, jailed, and charged with felonies. Not even Hitler and Stalin went this far.

Americans have lost control of the government, and governments that are not controlled by the people are not democracies. In America today, Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and the entire social safety net are threatened by the vociferous desire for war profits by armament plutocrats and by financial institutions determined that ordinary citizens bear the cost of the banksters incompetence and fraud.

Unz’s comparison of how the Chinese media and government handled the melamine or infant formula scandal and how the American media and government handled Merck’s Vioxx scandal is especially damning. It was China’s controlled media and unaccountable government that punished the infant formula wrongdoers, while America’s free press and accountable government allowed Merck to walk.

Unz’s conclusion is that it is in America, not China, where life is regarded as cheap.

Ron Unz is an American hero, and a very courageous one.

It is an even more courageous act when no one wants to hear the truth. As Frantz Fanon said, “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

Or as it is explained to Neo in the film, “The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

Most of the people I know personally are not willing to be unplugged. I assume my readers are, so seize the opportunity to be further unplugged and read Ron Unz’s comparison of America and China.

Then do what you can to unplug others.

The Daily Show - Mitt Happened

Thursday, April 19, 2012

2012 Dallas Cowboys Schedule

(yes, in spite of my rants against the NFL & players during the lockout, they got their shit together and played the entire season. yes, they are overpaid morons for the most part, but it's still fun to watch them bang the fuck out of each other. Go Cowboys!--jef)

The Solar System - Explore your backyard

"Epithet": a short film starring Patrick Stewart

Inspired by the Young Vic theatre's recent production of Edward Bond's play Bingo, Epithet – starring Patrick Stewart, directed by Angus Jackson and written by Mark O'Rowe – tells the story of a contemporary poet with a dubious background. Filmed near the site of Paris Gardens in Southwark, where bears were baited in Shakespeare's era, it is intended for a mature audience.

Warning: contains violent imagery and language

Synthetic DNA Created, Evolves on Its Own

"XNA" may help answer basic questions of biology, study says.
by Christine Dell'Amore - National Geographic News
Published April 19, 2012

Step aside, DNA—new synthetic compounds called XNAs can also store and copy genetic information, a new study says.

And, in a "big advancement," these artificial compounds can also be made to evolve in the lab, according to study co-author John Chaput of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.

Nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA are composed of four bases—A, G, C, and T. Attached to the bases are sugars and phosphates.

First, researchers made XNA building blocks to six different genetic systems by replacing the natural sugar component of DNA with one of six different polymers, synthetic chemical compounds.

The team—led by Vitor Pinheiro of the U.K.'s Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology—then evolved enzymes, called polymerases, that can make XNA from DNA, and others that can change XNA back into DNA.

This copying and translating ability allowed for genetic sequences to be copied and passed down again and again—artificial heredity.

Last, the team determined that HNA, one of the six XNA polymers, could respond to selective pressure in a test tube.

As would be expected for DNA, the stressed HNA evolved into different forms.

This shows that "beyond heredity, specific XNAs have the capacity for Darwinian evolution," according to the study, published tomorrow in the journal Science.

"Thus, heredity and evolution, two hallmarks of life, are not limited to DNA and RNA."

XNA Could Demystify Origins of Life?
All of XNA'S actions are "completely controlled by experimentalists—it's 100 percent unnatural," study co-author Chaput noted.

But such control means that scientists can "use [XNA] to ask very basic questions in biology," such as about the origins of life, Chaput said.

For instance, "it's possible that life didn't begin with DNA and proteins like we see today—it may have begun with something much, much simpler," he said.

A scientist could potentially evolve XNA to discover various functions that would have been important for early life.

Overall, he said, the new discovery is "pretty cool—and very powerful."

Comics Page

Rejected Romney Campaign Slogans
by Brian McFadden

Evolution Has Given Humans a Huge Advantage Over Most Other Animals: Middle Age

By David Bainbridge, Washington Post
As a 42-year-old man born in England, I can expect to live for about another 38 years. In other words, I can no longer claim to be young. I am, without doubt, middle-aged.

To some people that is a depressing realization. We are used to dismissing our fifth and sixth decades as a negative chapter in our lives, perhaps even a cause for crisis. But recent scientific findings have shown just how important middle age is for every one of us, and how crucial it has been to the success of our species. Middle age is not just about wrinkles and worry. It is not about getting old. It is an ancient, pivotal episode in the human life span, preprogrammed into us by natural selection, an exceptional characteristic of an exceptional species.

Compared with other animals, humans have a very unusual pattern to our lives. We take a very long time to grow up, we are long-lived, and most of us stop reproducing halfway through our life span.

A few other species have some elements of this pattern, but only humans have distorted the course of their lives in such a dramatic way. Most of that distortion is caused by the evolution of middle age, which adds two decades that most other animals simply do not get.

An important clue that middle age isn’t just the start of a downward spiral is that it does not bear the hallmarks of general, passive decline. Most body systems deteriorate very little during this stage of life. Those that do, deteriorate in ways that are very distinctive, are rarely seen in other species and are often abrupt.

For example, our ability to focus on nearby objects declines in a predictable way: Farsightedness is rare at 35 but universal at 50. Skin elasticity also decreases reliably and often surprisingly abruptly in early middle age. Patterns of fat deposition change in predictable, stereotyped ways. Other systems, notably cognition, barely change.

Each of these changes can be explained in evolutionary terms. In general, it makes sense to invest in the repair and maintenance only of body systems that deliver an immediate fitness benefit — that is, those that help to propagate your genes. As people get older, they no longer need spectacular visual acuity or mate-attracting, unblemished skin. Yet they do need their brains, and that is why we still invest heavily in them during middle age.

As for fat — that wonderfully efficient energy store that saved the lives of many of our hard-pressed ancestors — its role changes when we are no longer gearing up to produce offspring, especially in women. As the years pass, less fat is stored in depots ready to meet the demands of reproduction — the breasts, hips and thighs — or under the skin, where it gives a smooth, youthful appearance. Once our babymaking days are over, fat is stored in larger quantities and also stored more centrally, where it is easiest to carry about. That way, if times get tough we can use it for our own survival, thus freeing up food for our younger relatives.

These changes strongly suggest that middle age is a controlled and preprogrammed process not of decline but of development.

A crowning achievement
When we think of human development, we usually think of the growth of a fetus or the maturation of a child into an adult. Yet the tightly choreographed transition into middle age is a later but equally important stage in which we are each recast into yet another novel form.

That form is one of the most remarkable of all: a resilient, healthy, energy-efficient and productive phase of life that has laid the foundations for our species’s success. Indeed, the multiple roles of middle-aged people in human societies are so complex and intertwined, it could be argued that they are the most impressive living things yet produced by natural selection.

The claim that middle age evolved faces one obvious objection. For any trait to evolve, natural selection has to act on it generation after generation. Yet we often think of prehistoric life as nasty, brutish and short. Surely too few of our ancestors lived beyond age 40 to allow features of modern-day middle age, such as the deposition of a spare tire around the middle, to have been selected for.

This is a misconception. Although average life expectancy may sometimes have been very low, this does not mean that humans rarely reached the age of 40 during the past 100,000 years. Average life expectancy at birth can be a misleading measure; if infant mortality is high, then the average is skewed dramatically downward, even if people who survive to adulthood have a good chance of living a long, healthy life.

The evidence from skeletal remains suggests that our ancestors frequently lived well into middle age and beyond. Certainly many modern hunter-gatherers live well beyond 40.

The probable existence of lots of prehistoric middle-aged people means that natural selection had plenty to work on. Those with beneficial traits would have been more successful at nurturing their children to reproductive age and helping provide for their grandchildren, and hence would have passed on those traits to their descendants. As a result, modern middle age is the result of millennia of natural selection.

Lifelong learning
But why did it evolve as it did? In prehistory, and still today, human survival is entirely dependent on skilled gathering of rare, valuable resources. Humans cooperate, plan and innovate so they can extract what they need from their environment, be that roots to eat, hides to wear or rare metals to coat smartphone touch screens. We lead an energy-intensive, communication-driven, information-rich way of life, and it was the evolution of middle age that supported this.

For example, hunter-gatherer societies often have complex and difficult techniques for finding and processing food that take a long time to learn. There is evidence that many hunter-gatherers take decades to learn their craft and that their resource-acquiring abilities may not peak until they are older than 40.

Gathering sufficient calories is crucial for the success of a human community, especially since young humans take so long to grow up. Indeed, for the early years of life they devour calories without contributing many to the group themselves. Research suggests that a human child requires resources to be provided by multiple adults, almost certainly more than two young parents. For example, a recent study of two groups of South American hunter-gatherers suggested that each couple required the help of an additional 1.3 non-reproducing adults to provide for their children. Thus, middle-aged people may be seen as an essential human innovation, an elite caste of skilled, experienced super-providers on which the rest of us depend.

Culture conveyers

The other key role of middle age is the propagation of information. All animals inherit a great deal of information in their genes; some also learn more as they grow up. Humans have taken this second form of information transfer to a new level. We are born knowing and being able to do almost nothing. Each of us depends on a continuous infusion of skills, knowledge and customs, collectively known as culture, if we are to survive. And the main route by which culture is transferred is by middle-aged people showing and telling their children — as well as the young adults with whom they hunt and gather — what to do.

These two roles of middle-aged humans — as super-providers and master culture-conveyers — continue today. In offices, on construction sites and on sports fields around the world, we see middle-aged people advising and guiding younger adults and sometimes even ordering them about. Middle-aged people can do more, they earn more and, in short, they run the world.

This has left its mark on the human brain. As might be expected of people propagating complex skills, middle-aged people exhibit no dramatic cognitive deterioration. Changes do occur in our thinking abilities, but they are subtle. For example, response speeds slow down over the course of adulthood. However, speed isn’t everything, and it is still debated whether other abilities deteriorate at all.

To carry out their roles in society, middle-aged people need not necessarily think better than younger adults, but they may have to think differently. Indeed, functional brain imaging studies suggest that they sometimes use different brain regions than young people when performing the same tasks, raising the possibility that the nature of thought itself changes as we get older.

An elite club
A central and related feature of middle age is the many healthy years we enjoy after we have stopped reproducing. Female humans are especially unusual animals because they become infertile halfway through their lives, but male humans often also effectively “self-sterilize” by remaining with their post-menopausal partners. Almost no other species does this.

The possible benefits of menopause are not immediately obvious: After all, natural selection favors individuals who rear the most offspring. Yet there are other, rare examples of reproductive cessation in the animal kingdom that may provide some clues. Orcas also undergo menopause, and it is striking how much their lives mirror ours. They are long-lived, slow to develop, intelligent and vocally communicative. They invent and apply a complex array of techniques for communal food acquisition, and they are extremely widespread.

Thus, humans can be seen as members of an elite club of species in which adulthood has become so long and complicated that it can no longer all be given over to breeding. Just like farsightedness and inelastic skin, menopause now appears to be a coordinated, controlled process. It liberates women and their partners from the unremitting demands of producing children and gives them time to do what middle-aged people do best: live long and pamper.

Debtor’s Prison for Failure to Pay for Your Own Trial

by Alex Tabarrok on April 18, 2012

Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States but today poor people who fail to pay even small criminal justice fees are routinely being imprisoned. 

The problem has gotten worse recently because strapped states have dramatically increased the number of criminal justice fees

In Pennsylvania, for example, the criminal court charges for police transport, sheriff costs, state court costs, postage, and “judgment.” Many of these charges are not for any direct costs imposed by the criminal but have been added as revenue enhancers. A $5 fee, for example, supports the County Probation Officers’ Firearms Training Fund, an $8 fee supports the Judicial Computer Project, a $250 fee goes to the DNA Detection Fund. 

Convicted criminals may face dozens of fees (not including fines and restitution) totaling a substantial burden for people of limited means

Fees do not end outside the courtroom. Jailed criminals can be charged for room and board and for telephone use, haircuts, drug tests, transportation, booking, and medical co-pays. 

In Arizona, visitors to a prison are now charged a $25 maintenance fee. In PA in order to get parole there is a mandatory charge of $60. While on parole, defendants may be further assessed counseling, testing and other fees. Interest builds unpaid fees larger and larger. In Washington state unpaid legal debt accrues at an interest rate of 12%. As a result, the median person convicted in WA sees their criminal justice debt grow larger over time.

Many states are now even charging the accused to apply for and use a public defender! As a result, some defendants are discouraged from exercising their rights to an attorney.

Most outrageously, in some states public defender, pre-trial jail and other court fees can be assessed on individuals even when they are not convicted of any crime. Failure to pay criminal justice fees can result in revocation of an individual’s drivers license, arrest and imprisonment. Individuals with revoked licenses who drive (say to work to earn money to pay their fees) and are apprehended can be further fined and imprisoned. Unpaid criminal justice debt also results in damaged credit reports and reduced housing and employment prospects. Furthermore, failure to pay fees can mean a violation of probation and parole terms which makes an individual ineligible for Federal programs such as food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Family funds and Social Security Income for the elderly and disabled.

It’s difficult to argue against criminal justice fees for those who can pay, but for those who cannot– and most criminal defendants are poor–such fees can be a personal and public policy disaster. Criminal justice debt drags people further away from reintegration with civil society. A person’s life can spiral out of their control when interest, late fees, revocation of a driver’s license and ineligibility for public assistance, mean that unpaid criminal justice debt snowballs. You can’t get blood from a stone but if you try, you can break the stone.

Optimal punishment is swift and sure but also has a defined endpoint. As with bankruptcy, punishment must end, leaving both hope and opportunity. We used to release criminals without a nickel or a nail but with an understanding that their debt to society had been paid. Today, we release criminals with a ball of debt and other restrictions that chains them to the criminal justice system and which can pull them back into prison long after their sentences have been served. Releasing people with little hope or opportunity for reintegration with civil society is good for neither the releasees nor society.