Friday, January 25, 2013

Why J.J. Abrams Is A Bad Choice To Direct Star Wars Episode VII

By Alyssa Rosenberg on Jan 24, 2013

Because we really need our pop culture franchise to be dominated by an increasingly limited number of visions, Deadline and other outlets are reporting that J.J. Abrams will direct Star Wars Episode VII:
Star Trek director J.J. Abrams will be helming the next Star Wars movie. “It’s done deal with J.J.,” a source with knowledge of the situation told Deadline today. Argo director Ben Affleck was also up for the gig, the source says. Michael Arndt is writing the script for the first installment of the relaunch of George Lucas’ franchise by Disney.

There are two issues here: how well-suited Abrams is for Star Wars in particular, and the consolidation of big franchises under a very limited number of perspectives (especially since the perspectives are those of white dudes).

On the question of Abrams as a fit for Star Wars, I’m deeply ambivalent. I think the franchise has been at its weakest when it’s delving too deeply into the details of its mythology. In the initial trilogy George Lucas and his collaborators had the wisdom to retain the emotional power of the Force as a cinematic device by leaving it relatively mysterious. Once the movies started delving into midichlorians and the manifestations thereof, the Force started to seem clunky and silly, no longer something those of us at home could dream of accessing. Abrams and his collaborators have a weakness for focusing on mysteries and exploring them to death, be they Smoke Monsters, strings of numbers, or aliens rampaging around New York City. I do think there’s an extent to which Abrams will be protected from this tendency by Arndt’s script, and the larger plans of Disney, which will presumably will be thinking about projects like television shows and Zack Snyder’s rumored stand-alone Star Wars movie. But I do think that Abrams’ interests in mysteries are actually a relatively a poor match for the greatest strength of the Star Wars movies: using a mysterious concept to open up a larger world, rather than focusing obsessively on the mystery itself.

But really, the profound disappointment I felt on hearing this news is less about my specific feelings about Abrams as a director. It’s more that franchises like The Avengers, Star Trek, Justice League, and Star Wars are opportunities for writers and directors to exert enormous cultural influence, and to accrue the kind of capital and credibility that can become enormous springboards for their more personal projects. The Avengers, for example, gave Joss Whedon an opportunity to bring his unique spin on female characters to Black Widow, who’d been poorly served in Iron Man 2. And its success won him a long-running and one assumes extraordinarily lucrative position overseeing the franchise: his ideas about superheroism will play a major role in American moviegoing for as much as a decade to come, and the money he makes from it gives him the opportunity to pursue more passion projects like his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. That is an extraordinarily precious thing, and it makes me terribly sad to see that power concentrated in one person, rather than spread out to a number of people with different interests and perspectives on the kinds of questions raised by our biggest franchises.

There should be debates about what it means to have extraordinarily powerful people emerge in our society, which is why I’m glad that Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel apparently is going to explore a much more ambivalent reaction to the rise of superheroes than either The Avengers or Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies ever contemplated. There should be arguments about what our future is going to look like, which is one of the reasons Abrams’ Star Trek, which was a dramatic retreat from the socially engaged tradition of the franchise, was a disappointment even as it was highly entertaining. And while Star Wars is a space opera, it’s also always been about totalitarianism, religious extremism, torture, and the moral value of political engagement, too. The source and meaning of mystery isn’t the only issue worth considering. And white, male geek gods aren’t the only people with profound investment in these franchises, and the way they express these questions.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Military Contracting: Our New Era of Corporate Mercenaries

Thursday, January 24, 2013 by The Guardian/UK
A niche business has become a huge industry – but murky as ever: privatizing conflict means bypassing democratic oversight

by Arjun Sethi

In early 1995, Sierra Leone was on the brink of collapse. A violent civil war had ravaged the country, leaving thousands dead and countless others wounded. The insurgent rebels, infamous for recruiting child soldiers, were just weeks from the beleaguered capital, Freetown, and appeared unassailable.

Several months later, however, the tide had turned: the government's authority was strengthened, rebel forces were repelled, and control over the country's major economic assets was restored. Executive Outcomes, a private military contractor armed with helicopters and state of the art artillery, helped change the course of the war.

Nearly every tool necessary to wage war can now be purchased: combat support, including the ability to conduct large-scale operations and surgical strikes; operational support, like training and intelligence gathering; and general support, like transportation services and paramedical assistance. The demand for these services, in turn, has ballooned: the gross revenue for the private military contractor industry is now in excess of $100bn a year.

The privatization of conflict is no longer a trend. It's the norm.

The United States relied so heavily on contractors during the recent Iraq war that no one knows with certainty how many were on the ground. In late 2010, the United Arab Emirates, fearful that the Arab uprisings might spread to the Gulf, paid Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, $529m to create an elite force to safeguard the emirate. And today, Russia is openly considering forming a cadre of private military contractors to further its interests abroad.

Yet, the laws that govern this industry tell a different story. Instead of a transnational system with meaningful collaboration, we have a patchwork of state laws that allow companies to forum-shop and circumvent regulations. Contractors can likewise relocate, as they typically rent the equipment necessary to complete their contracts; their primary source of capital is human, not physical.

In addition to closing loopholes, states must monitor contractors, and prosecute them when they commit crimes. To this day, not a single contractor has been successfully prosecuted for its role in the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities or the Nisour Square massacre, in which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed.

Contractors claim that their services are market- and self-regulated. They contend that wanton violence would stop governments from seeking their assistance. Yet, the theatre of war often obscures their activities.

In its final report to the US Congress, the Commission on Wartime Contracting found that the US government lost more than $30bn to contractor waste and fraud in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Also, corporations can rename and rebrand, thereby mitigating reputational harm. Consider Blackwater USA, which changed its name to Xe Services LLC, and then to Academi – all in the last four years.

The UN working group on the use of mercenaries has suggested that certain military functions, like combat services and interrogation, not be outsourced to private contractors. Its guidelines should be followed. Outsourcing foreign policy goals undermines democratic oversight because contractor activities, including casualties, typically escape public scrutiny. It can also allow states to evade legislative oversight.(It also does more to further the agenda of the corporate ownership of the contractor than the political/military entity by who hired them--As long as war is considered profitable and a money-making, corporate kingmaking enterprise, there will never be peace in our world again. This should go a long way at dramatically illustrating that the idea of "privatizing war" is one of the most evil concepts ever given by mankind.--jef)
The greatest check against war is the horror of war itself. Yet, as the physical distance between warring states grows, so does the temptation to loosen our moral compass. Violence that lacks immediacy is easier to ignore. Permitting third parties to wage war for profit risks a world in which war is not the last resort but an economic transaction in which the victims are faceless and nameless.

And so, we return to Sierra Leone. Although the intervention by Executive Outcomes is sometimes touted as illustrating the viability of military contractors, history suggests otherwise. The contractor was later accused of interfering in domestic politics to pursue financial gain, and an associated firm received payment through diamond mine concessions, which compromised the country's economic future.

Moreover, violence resumed after Executive Outcomes left Sierra Leone. It became clear that the government had over-relied on the contractor and undercut its own institutions.

The fog of war is hazy enough. We don't need additional, unregulated cloud cover.


 And how about a song that hammers the point home?

The Return of COINTELPRO?

Time to Target the Real Terrorists

“Democracies die behind closed doors” – Judge Damon J. Keith

For 15 years (1956-1971) the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ran a broad and highly coordinated domestic intelligence / counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgrams). What was originally deemed as a justifiable effort to protect the US during the Cold War from Soviet and Communist threats and infiltration, soon devolved into a program for suppressing domestic dissent and spying on American citizens. Approximately 20,000 people were investigated by the FBI based only on their political views and beliefs. Most were never suspected of having committed any crime.

The reasoning behind the program, as detailed in a 1976 Senate report, was that the FBI had “the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order.” The fact that the “perceived threats” were usually American citizens engaging in constitutionally protected behaviour was apparently overlooked. The stated goal of COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” any individual or group deemed to be subversive or a threat to the established power structure.

The FBI’s techniques were often extreme, with the agency being complicit in the murder and assassination of political dissidents, or having people sent away to prison for life. Some of the more “moderate” actions that were used were blackmail, spreading false rumors, intimidation and harassment. It has been argued that the US is unique in that it is the only Western industrialized democracy to have engaged in such a wide spread and well organized domestic surveillance program. It finally came to an end in 1971 when it was threatened with public exposure.

Or did it?

In a stunning revelation from the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF), it appears that COINTELPRO is alive and well. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, PCJF was able to obtain documents showing how the FBI was treating the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, from its inception, as a potential criminal and domestic terrorist threat. This despite the FBI’s own acknowledgement that the OWS organizers themselves planned on engaging in peaceful and popular protest and did not “condone the use of violence.”

The documents, while heavily redacted, give a clear picture of how the FBI was using its offices and agents across the country as early as August 2011 to engage in a massive surveillance scheme against OWS. This was almost a month before any actual protests took place or encampments were set up (the most famous being the one in New York City’s Zuccotti Park).

The FBI’s documents show a government agency at its most paranoid. It considered all planned protests, and the individuals involved, as potential threats. Most disturbing of all, there is talk (p. 61) of the government being ready to “engage in sniper attacks against protesters in Houston, Texas, if deemed necessary” and perhaps needing to formulate a plan “to kill the leadership [of the protest groups] via suppressed sniper rifles.”

Furthermore, the documents reveal a close and intricate partnership between the federal government on one side and banks and private businesses on the other.

On August 19, 2011, the FBI met with representatives of the New York Stock Exchange in order to discuss OWS protests that wouldn’t happen for another four weeks. In September of that year, even before OWS got into full swing, the FBI was notifying local businesses that they might be affected by protests. It is not clear if, while on Wall Street, the FBI investigated the criminal and irresponsible behavior engaged in by some of the largest banks on the planet, behavior which led directly to the financial crisis of 2008.

We are also introduced to a creature named the “Domestic Security Alliance Council” which, according to the federal government, is “a strategic partnership between the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the private sector.” A DSAC report tells us that any information shared between US intelligence agencies and their corporate partners should not be released to “the media, the general public or other personnel.”

In a curious coincidence, nine days after the PCJF’s embarrassing release of FBI documents, the New York Post ran a story about how a 27 year old woman and her “Harvard grad and Occupy Wall Street” boyfriend, Aaron Greene, were arrested by officers from the New York City Police Department (NYPD) after an alleged cache of weapons and bomb making explosives were found in their Greenwich Village apartment.

And what exactly led the police to this apartment? Was it credible actionable intelligence gathered from the FBI’s massive domestic surveillance program? Did some agent acquire this information by bravely infiltrating the potential domestic terrorist group known as OWS? Hardly. The NYPD was simply executing a routine search warrant related to a credit card-theft case.

But in a story about the exact same event that appeared in the New York Times, it was reported that “police said they did not believe that Mr. Greene was active in any political movements” and that no “evidence of a planned terrorist attack” had been found . Furthermore, police hadn’t “made a connection to any known plot or any connection to any known terrorists.” No mention was made of the suspect’s alleged ties to the OWS movement, an item that had been prominently reported in the New York Post’s version of events.

Oddly, a more recent New York Post story stated that Mr. Greene was now a “Nazi-loving Harvard grad” and a reported “Adolf Hitler-wannabe.” No mention was made of his suspected ties to OWS. This author made several attempts to contact the New York Post, and the writers of the 2 articles, in an effort to find out how they knew that Mr. Greene was an OWS member and activist. Attempts were also made to try to find out if the New York Post still believed that Mr. Greene was an active OWS member, or if they now simply thought that he was just an “Adolf Hitler-wannabe.”

As of the writing of this article, no response has been received from the New York Post.

The FBI’s stated mission regarding America’s security is to “develop a comprehensive understanding of the threats and penetrate national and transnational networks that have a desire and capability to harm us.”

The American people would be far better served by their government if, instead of wasting millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours harassing peaceful protesters, it spent a fraction of that time and money investigating, and bringing to justice, the people responsible for the engineered destruction of the American economy, and by extension, American society.

You know. The real terrorists.

“COINTELPRO: The FBI’s Covert Action Programs Against American Citizens” Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book III, Final report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, April 23, 1976. Accessed at:
“COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story”, by Paul Wolf with contributions from Robert Boyle, Bob Brown, Tom Burghardt, Noam Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Kathleen Cleaver, Bruce Ellison, Cynthia McKinney, Nkechi Taifa, Laura Whitehorn, Nicholas Wilson, and Howard Zinn. Presented to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa by the members of the Congressional Black Caucus attending the conference: Donna Christianson, John Conyers, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Barbara Lee, Sheila Jackson Lee, Cynthia McKinney, and Diane Watson, September 1, 2001. Accessed at:
“FBI Documents Reveal Secret Nationwide Occupy Monitoring” The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF), December 22, 2012. Accessed at:
“Greenwich Village couple busted with cache of weapons, bombmaking explosives: sources” by Jamie Schram, Antonio Antenucci and Matt McNulty, December 31, 2012, The New York Post.   Accessed at:
“Manhattan Couple Stored Bomb-Making Items, Police Say” by Wendy Ruderman, December 31, 2012, The New York Times. Accessed at:
“More About FBI Spying” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), June 25, 2010. Accessed at:
“NYC couple arrested after explosive substance find” December 31, 2012, CBS/AP. Accessed at:
“Revealed: how the FBI coordinated the crackdown on Occupy” by Naomi Wolf, December 29, 2012, The Guardian. Accessed at:
“The Federal Bureau of Investigation – Mission” The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Accessed at:
“Village ‘bomber’ planned to blow up Washington Sq. Arch with high-grade explosives: cops” by Jamie Schram and Jessica Simeone, January 10, 2013, The New York Post. Accessed at:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Untouchables: How the Obama Administration Protected Wall Street from Prosecutions

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 by The Guardian/UK
A new PBS Frontline report examines a profound failure of justice that should be causing serious social unrest
by Glenn Greenwald

PBS' Frontline program on Tuesday night broadcast a new one-hour report on one of the greatest and most shameful failings of the Obama administration: the lack of even a single arrest or prosecution of any senior Wall Street banker for the systemic fraud that precipitated the 2008 financial crisis: a crisis from which millions of people around the world are still suffering. What this program particularly demonstrated was that the Obama justice department, in particular the Chief of its Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, never even tried to hold the high-level criminals accountable.

What Obama justice officials did instead is exactly what they did in the face of high-level Bush era crimes of torture and warrantless eavesdropping: namely, acted to protect the most powerful factions in the society in the face of overwhelming evidence of serious criminality. Indeed, financial elites were not only vested with impunity for their fraud, but thrived as a result of it, even as ordinary Americans continue to suffer the effects of that crisis.

Worst of all, Obama justice officials both shielded and feted these Wall Street oligarchs (who, just by the way, overwhelmingly supported Obama's 2008 presidential campaign) as they simultaneously prosecuted and imprisoned powerless Americans for far more trivial transgressions. As Harvard law professor Larry Lessig put it two weeks ago when expressing anger over the DOJ's persecution of Aaron Swartz: "we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House." (Indeed, as "The Untouchables" put it: while no senior Wall Street executives have been prosecuted, "many small mortgage brokers, loan appraisers and even home buyers" have been).

As I documented at length in my 2011 book on America's two-tiered justice system, With Liberty and Justice for Some, the evidence that felonies were committed by Wall Street is overwhelming. That evidence directly negates the primary excuse by Breuer (previously offered by Obama himself) that the bad acts of Wall Street were not criminal.

Numerous documents prove that executives at leading banks, credit agencies, and mortgage brokers were falsely touting assets as sound that knew were junk: the very definition of fraud. As former Wall Street analyst Yves Smith wrote in her book ECONned: "What went on at Lehman and AIG, as well as the chicanery in the CDO [collateralized debt obligation] business, by any sensible standard is criminal." Even lifelong Wall Street defender Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chair, said in Congressional testimony that "a lot of that stuff was just plain fraud."

A New York Times editorial in August explained that the DOJ's excuse for failing to prosecute Wall Street executives - that it was too hard to obtain convictions - "has always defied common sense - and all the more so now that a fuller picture is emerging of the range of banks' reckless and lawless activities, including interest-rate rigging, money laundering, securities fraud and excessive speculation." The Frontline program interviewed former prosecutors, Senate staffers and regulators who unequivocally said the same: it is inconceivable that the DOJ could not have successfully prosecuted at least some high-level Wall Street executives - had they tried.

What's most remarkable about all of this is not even Wall Street had the audacity to expect the generosity of largesse they ended up receiving. "The Untouchables" begins by recounting the massive financial devastation the 2008 crisis wrought - "the economy was in ruins and bankers were being blamed" - and recounts:
"In 2009, Wall Street bankers were on the defensive, worried they could be held criminally liable for fraud. With a new administration, bankers and their attorneys expected investigations and at least some prosecutions."

Indeed, the show recalls that both in Washington and the country generally, "there was broad support for prosecuting Wall Street." Nonetheless: "four years later, there have been no arrests of any senior Wall Street executives."

In response to the DOJ's excuse-making that these criminal cases are too hard to win, numerous experts - Senators, top Hill staffers, former DOJ prosecutors - emphasized the key point: Obama officials never even tried. One of the heroes of "The Untouchables", former Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman, worked tirelessly to provide the DOJ with all the funds it needed to ensure probing criminal investigations and even to pressure and compel them to do so. Yet when he and his staff would meet with Breuer and other top DOJ officials, they would proudly tout the small mortgage brokers they were pursuing, in response to which Kafuman and his staff said: "No. Don't show me small-time mortgage guys in California. This is totally about what went on in Wall Street. . . . We are talking about investigating senior level Wall Street executives, even at the Board level". (The same Lanny Breuer was recently seen announcing that the banking giant HSBC would face no criminal prosecution for its money laundering of funds for designated terrorist groups and drug networks on the ground that the bank was too big to risk prosecuting).

As Kaufman and his staffers make clear, Obama officials were plainly uninterested in pursuing criminal accountability for Wall Street. One former staffer to both Biden and Kaufman, Jeff Connaughton, wrote a book in 2011 - "The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins" - devoted to alerting the nation that the Obama DOJ refused even to try to find criminal culprits on Wall Street. In the book, this career-Democratic-aide-turned-whistleblower details how the levers of Washington power are used to shield and protect high-level Wall Street executives, many of whom have close ties to the leaders of both parties and themselves are former high-level government officials. This is a system, he makes clear, that is constituted to ensure that those executives never face real accountability even for their most egregious and destructive crimes.

The reason there have been no efforts made to criminally investigate is obvious. Former banking regulator and current securities Professor Bill Black told Bill Moyers in 2009 that "Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury, and others in the administration, with the banks, are engaged in a cover up to keep us from knowing what went wrong." In the documentary "Inside Job", the economist Nouriel Roubini, when asked why there have been no such investigations, replied: "Because then you'd find the culprits." Underlying all of that is what the Senate's second-highest ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin, admitted in 2009: the banks "frankly own the place".
The harms from this refusal to hold Wall Street accountable are the same generated by the general legal immunity the US political culture has vested in its elites. Just as was true for the protection of torturers and illegal eavesdroppers, it ensures that there are no incentives to avoid similar crimes in the future. It is an injustice in its own right to allow those with power and wealth to commit destructive crimes with impunity. It subverts democracy and warps the justice system when a person's treatment under the law is determined not by their acts but by their power, position, and prestige. And it exposes just how shameful is the American penal state by contrasting the immunity given to the nation's most powerful with the merciless and brutal punishment meted out to its most marginalized.

The real mystery from all of this is that it has not led to greater social unrest. To some extent, both the early version of the Tea Party and the Occupy movements were spurred by the government's protection of Wall Street at the expense of everyone else. Still, Americans continue to be plagued by massive unemployment, foreclosures, the threat of austerity and economic insecurity while those who caused those problems have more power and profit than ever. And they watch millions of their fellow citizens be put in cages for relatively minor offenses while the most powerful are free to commit far more serious crimes with complete impunity. Far less injustice than this has spurred serious unrest in other societies.

[The one-hour Frontline program can be viewed in its entirety here.]

Chemicals Most Countries Ban Still Permitted in US Foods

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 by Common Dreams
Recent investigations highlight industry preference in FDA, expose frequent use of cheap and dangerous additives
- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Spawned by a petition calling on Gatorade to remove a flame retardant from their sports drink, the Chicago Tribune released an investigation into the chemical ingredients that the United States and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are permitting despite frequent bans elsewhere.

Mississippi 15-year-old, Sarah Kavanagh, launched the petition after learning that Gatorade contains an emulsifier, brominated vegetable oil (or BVO), which is illegal to use as a food additive in the European Union, India, Nepal, Canada, Brazil and Japan because of its connection to reproductive and behavior problems.

"In the U.S. money rules and industry wields a lot of influence and that's how it has been for a while," said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union, "but in Europe they take into serious consideration what their population wants, too. And why shouldn't the population be concerned about new things being put into food?"

Whereas other international authorities tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to evaluating food additives, in the US new food products "simply need an OK from experts hired by the manufacturers" giving the FDA the option to investigate later "if health issues emerge."

Though the FDA's mission is purportedly "to protect public health by ensuring that foods are safe and properly labeled," a second examination released Wednesday by the non-profit food watchdog, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), revealed that the amount of food fraud and mislabeled ingredients is up by 60 percent this year.

In comparison to their initial Food Fraud Database published in April 2012, the group found a surge in adulterated ingredients in common household products.

ABC News reports:
Among the most popular targets for unscrupulous food suppliers? Pomegranate juice, which is often diluted with grape or pear juice…additional sugar, or just water and sugar.

[Markus Lipp, senior director for Food Standards at an independent lab] added that there have also been reports of completely "synthetic pomegranate juice" that didn't contain any traces of the real juice.

USP tells ABC News that liquids and ground foods in general are the easiest to tamper with:
  • Olive oil: often diluted with cheaper oils
  • Lemon juice: cheapened with water and sugar
  • Tea: diluted with fillers like lawn grass or fern leaves
  • Spices: like paprika or saffron adulterated with dangerous food colorings that mimic the colors
Milk, honey, coffee and syrup are also listed by the USP as being highly adulterated products.

Also high on the list: seafood. The number one fake being escolar, an oily fish that can cause stomach problems, being mislabeled as white tuna or albacore, frequently found on sushi menus.
Kavanagh, whose personal dismay launched the Gatorade petition and subsequent investigation, said it "shows greed" when companies use chemical additives and cheaper ingredients that could cause health problems.

"It shows that they care less about consumers than about how much money they spend and make," she added.

Gatorade has stated that no changes are planned to its US drink formulation despite the over 200,000 signatures gathered calling for the ban.

New Labor Stats Show GOP Assault on Public Unions Is Working

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 by Common Dreams
Numbers 'reflect concerted attack on organized labor'
- Jon Queally, staff writer
As the Washington Post's Jim Tankersley points out and new data from the US Department of Labor released on Wednesday confirms, the Republican push to destroy public sector unions in the last several years is having its desired effect.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' new figures on unionization, the percentage of organized workers in the US took a sharp—and 'unusual'—decline last year, dropping from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012.

Moreover, as the New York Times highlights, the largest dip came not from the typical source of private union attrition caused by offshoring or factory closings, but from job losses in the public sector, which caused overall public sector union rates to drop more than full point in one year—from 37 percent to 35.9 percent.

Private sector unions—long in decline due to outsourcing linked to corporate globalization policies—now currently have about 7 million members, whereas public employee unions have roughly 7.3 million members.

The curious trend that Tankersley points out is the role that government-pushed austerity has played in union attrition. He writes:
The big culprit for last year’s drop doesn’t appear to be outsourcing (though union factory employment has fallen since the recession, while non-union employment has risen). The issue was austerity.

Specifically, state and local governments laid off a lot of workers last year to help balance their budgets. That means they let a lot of union members go. The Labor Department reports that more than half of all U.S. union members work in the public sector; government is nearly 36 percent unionized, while the private-sector union membership rate is less than 7 percent. (Last year’s stats suggest that some Republican governors’ efforts to reduce unionization in their state public sectors is working – Wisconsin posted a 2.1 percentage point drop in union membership from 2011 to 2012.)

Asking labor leaders to respond to the statistics on membership, Tankersley said they 'roundly' agreed that the drop in rates "reflected a concerted attack on organized labor and an austerity hit to the economy that affects everyone, not just folks with a union card."

“The economic crisis—and the politicians who took advantage of it for their own anti-worker purposes—had a negative impact,” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told Tankersley.

And Richard Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s main union federation, added: “Working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today, but the sad truth is that it has become more difficult for them to have one, as today’s figures on union membership demonstrate.”

Google Report Shows 'Disturbing Growth in Government Surveillance'

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 by Common Dreams
Most recent Transparency Report from web giant reveals 136% increase in user data requests from US since 2009
- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Google has released its newest semiannual Transparency Report on Wednesday, which shows a "steady increase in government requests" for user data and marks a "disturbing growth in government surveillance online."

The US made 8,438 user data requests during the second half of 2012, a nearly 136% percent increase since 2009. The report from the web giant, which discloses the number of requests it receives from governments and courts worldwide, shows that user data requests are up 70 percent since 2009, with a total of over 21,000 user data requests from over 33,000 users or accounts in the second half of 2012.

The U.S. made the biggest number of requests by far—8,438 during this period, which marks a nearly 136 percent increase since 2009.

Of those U.S. requests, 68% were from subpoenas, as Richard Salgado writes on Google's blog on the report, and "are requests for user-identifying information, issued under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and are the easiest to get because they typically don’t involve judges."

The Guardian's Dominic Rushe points out how the use of EPCA to get user data is dangerous:
The ECPA has been widely criticised by privacy advocates, and was passed in 1986, long before electronic communication became so common. Under the act, email stored on a third party's server for more than 180 days is considered abandoned. To access that information, officials need only a written statement certifying that the information is relevant to an investigation.

But Holmes Wilson, co-founder of online advocacy group Fight For the Future, said the Justice Department had argued that emails are "abandoned" once they are opened. "Ironically, the emails that now have the most protection are the spam that you never open," he said. "ECPA is under dire need of reform. Right now the government can access almost anything that you have online without a warrant and at anytime. Electronic communication should be afforded the same protection as your physical mail or files stores in a cabinet," he said.

Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, says the report "reveals a disturbing growth in government surveillance online," and adds:
On its own, the growth in number of requests for private information like emails should be alarming, especially after the Petreus case. Even more disturbing is that most requests have not been reviewed by a court to ensure that law enforcement has established probable cause to believe a crime has actually been committed, as the Fourth Amendment generally requires.

Today's report doesn't really tell us the full extent of unconstitutional privacy invasions. Law enforcement officials rightly note that they need subpoena access to subscriber information as the 'building blocks' for establishing probable case. They also insist they're already getting warrants for content information, even when ECPA doesn't require that. But we still don't have hard data on either claim. Worse, while large companies like Google may rightly refuse to turn over user data without a warrant, smaller companies without legal staffs may feel compelled to turn over private data with only a subpoena, or perhaps even without one at all.

There is No Hope for Change

Four More Years of "It Could Have Been Worse"

There have been two momentous events in the last week. Of course President Obama’s swearing in for a second term is a big deal, even if somewhat less historic than his inauguration back in 2009. The other big event was the release of the Federal Reserve Board’s transcripts from the 2007 meetings of the Fed’s Open Market Committee (FOMC).

If the FOMC sounds like a nerdy and irrelevant concern that is a big problem. It is the Fed’s job to prevent disasters like the one we are now living through as a result of the collapse of an $8 trillion housing bubble. We already knew from previous years’ transcripts that the Fed was almost entirely oblivious to the growth of the housing bubble. It took little notice as house prices grew ever more out of line with fundamentals and mortgage financing became ever more sketchy.

Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke (he was governor during most of the run-up), and the rest also seemed oblivious to the extent to which the housing market was driving the economy. There was little appreciation of the fact that an unsustainable building boom and surge in consumption driven by ephemeral housing wealth were the major factors driving the economy in the years 2002-2007.

The 2007 transcripts show that this crew was still oblivious even as the economy was beginning to collapse all around them. This is the captain and crew of the Titanic planning their stay in New York after the ship had already hit the iceberg.

Somehow no one ever raises the issue of how the economy will replace the demand created by the collapse of the bubble. If housing construction just fell back to its normal share of GDP, it would have created a hole in demand of more than 2 percentage points of GDP (at $320 billion annually in today’s economy). If the evaporation of bubble-generated housing equity led saving rates to return to more normal levels, it would imply a hit to annual demand of another 4 percentage points of GDP (at $640 billion annually in today’s economy).

This $960 billion in lost annual demand doesn’t even capture the secondary hit to state and local governments due to lost tax revenue or the fact that non-residential real estate was also experiencing a bubble. But the massive loss of demand associated with a collapse of the bubble did not seem to be on the mind of anyone at the FOMC even as the collapse of the bubble was picking up steam and the economy entered the recession at the end of the year.

With President Obama beginning his second term, it is a good time to take stock of where the economy stands. In spite of having dropped 2.2 percentage points from its peak, at 7.8 percent the unemployment rate is still as high as the peak in the 1990-1991 recession and more than a full percentage point above the peak of the 2001 recession. We are down almost 4 million jobs from the pre-recession peak in 2007 and more than 9 million jobs below where we would be if the economy had continued its trend growth path.

The collapse of the bubble wiped out a large portion of the wealth of the baby boom cohorts that are now reaching retirement age. The typical household among the 55-64 cohort has just $170,000 in wealth. This means that if they took all their assets they would have almost enough money to pay off the mortgage on a typical home, which now sells for $180,000. After this they would be entirely dependent on Social Security to support them in retirement. The typical younger baby boomer, ages 45-54, has around $80,000 in wealth. And both groups have to worry about politicians in Washington who want to pare back their Social Security and cut their Medicare.

The cumulative loss in GDP to date compared with what the Congressional Budget Office projected back in January of 2008, before it recognized the recession, is $6.2 trillion. That comes to $80,000 in lost output for an average family of four. This is money that was just thrown in the garbage because the economy was operating below its potential.

The worst part of this story is that there is little prospect that things will get much better. At the current rate at which the economy is adding jobs, we won’t make up our jobs deficit until the middle of the next decade. And as long as the labor market is so weak, there is little likelihood that workers will be in a position to get their share of wage gains.

But the weak state of the economy is not even on the agenda in Washington. The national debate is focused like a laser beam on how to reduce the deficit caused by the collapse of the economy. It would be funny if there were not so many people seeing their lives ruined.

In 2008, President Obama ran on a platform of hope and change. After four years, the biggest change is that there is no hope.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Health Insurance is Not Healthcare

 Nothing lets the wind out of my sails more than this monumental missed opportunity to provide the citizens of this country affordable health care, not just mandated health insurance. The fix was in from the start, and this shitty "reform" bill  will cost more lives than it ever hopes to save.

"Insurance is a Bet"

Insurance companies make a simple wager with you each time you sign a policy. They are betting that, over the life of the policy, they will pay out less to you and your beneficiaries than you will pay them.

Insurance companies of all kinds make tidy profits on this simple wager. If they don’t, sometimes the government will bail them out.

Either way, insurance is still just a bet. And in America, we do not have a healthcare system. We have a health insurance industry.
That industry has been one of the most profitable sectors of the economy for well over a decade. But costs skyrocketed and care suffered. We heard horror stories about rationed care, denied procedures and corporate bureaucracies run amok. Ironically, these were the horror stories we were supposed to hear if the government took the reigns of the “best healthcare system in the world.”

So, instead of a single-payer healthcare system, we got The Affordable Care Act—aka Obamacare. Instead of retiring the health insurance industry and its actuarial tables and profit margins and wagers, Obama “saved” the health insurance industry and enshrined it in perpetuity as the Health Insurance-Industrial Complex.”
As the Affordable Care Act’s provisions begin to take effect, the folks in the Complex are wasting no time doing what they can to keep their profits tidy. Leading insurers in California are seeking increases in premiums ranging from 20% to 26%. Regulators in Florida and Ohio have already approved increasing premiums as much as 20%, and, since the ACA doesn’t set federal standards, insurance companies are moving in a number of states to force these spikes in premiums.

Remember, if you can “afford” health insurance, you have to buy it. If you refuse, you’ll pay a penalty to the government at tax time. Some are exempt from this mandate. But, in effect, the ACA has guaranteed the health insurance industry a captive market.

Meanwhile, they continue to change the terms of all those bets they’ve placed against millions of Americans and the cost of the “best healthcare in the world” continues to rise. When compared to other nations with some form of single-payer system, the difference is so stark that it’s almost obscene. It’s not just the $800 difference between an MRI in France versus the U.S., it’s almost every part of a system that has at its heart the relentless desire to turn a profit.

Even worse, a much-ballyhooed part of the promised “21st Century transformation” into greater “affordability” has turned out be little more than a profiteering scheme.

Remember the “streamlining” and “cost savings” guaranteed from the conversion to electronic medical records? Well, it hasn’t quite panned out. In fact, the only real beneficiaries of the conversion are companies like General Electric that sell electronic medical records systems. Not coincidentally, GE and other interested parties funded the key RAND study in 2005 that both predicted $81 billion in savings for America’s health care system and also became the driving rationale for the profitable conversion.

This type of closed system is par for the course in Washington, D.C.

Every door revolves in the nation’s only recession-proof city. Is it any surprise that the woman who wrote the Affordable Care Act is now leaving the White House for a job with health care giant Johnson & Johnson? Liz Fowler worked for Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) during the drafting of the ACA and had the primary responsibility for authoring the legislation. After its passage, she migrated to the White House to help with implementation. Seems reasonable enough. However, it is important to note where she was before joining the staff of Senator Baucus. Yup, you guessed it…she was a bigwig at WellPoint, the nation’s second leading health insurance company with nearly 54 million policyholders.

All of this makes you wonder who knew whom in the breast milk-pump industry, which is seeing a huge spike in its profits thanks to a new coverage requirement written into the ACA.

It may be too early to render judgment on a law that hasn’t yet been fully implemented, but it is not too early to determine that the profit motive might simply be incompatible with the equitable delivery of healthcare. As matter of course, businesses try to lower costs and increase revenue. That may be okay when they sell scissors or candlesticks, but it seems ill-suited to deliver labor-intensive care for those who are most vulnerable.

And as far as the health of the insurance industry, it’s a safe bet that they’ll keep coming out on top as the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented.

NRA Debate Tips

Is it too much to ask for some rational opinions and less over-the-top rhetoric on the gun debate? I'm a progressive and a gun-owner, and I would like to see compromise from both sides on this issue, but the anti-gun side is having to overcompensate while being absurded to death by the pro-gun side to the point that we rational gun owners really have no one speaking for us. I'm sorry but non-negotiating, foamy mouthed blowhards aren't going to sell anyone on rational and sane gun ownership laws. If you want people to think you're a crazy gun nut, keep at it the way you've been doing. If you want people to take you seriously, settle down, breathe between statements, let the counterpoint get their time to speak, and focus on the issue directly, not by nebulously quoting the 2nd Amendment ad nauseum.

Your Lack of Privacy on the Internet