Saturday, May 4, 2013

Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government?

A former FBI counterterrorism agent claims on CNN that this is the case
by Glenn Greenwald, Saturday 4 May 2013

The real capabilities and behavior of the US surveillance state are almost entirely unknown to the American public because, like most things of significance done by the US government, it operates behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy. But a seemingly spontaneous admission this week by a former FBI counterterrorism agent provides a rather startling acknowledgment of just how vast and invasive these surveillance activities are.

Over the past couple days, cable news tabloid shows such as CNN's Out Front with Erin Burnett have been excitingly focused on the possible involvement in the Boston Marathon attack of Katherine Russell, the 24-year-old American widow of the deceased suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. As part of their relentless stream of leaks uncritically disseminated by our Adversarial Press Corps, anonymous government officials are claiming that they are now focused on telephone calls between Russell and Tsarnaev that took place both before and after the attack to determine if she had prior knowledge of the plot or participated in any way.

On Wednesday night, Burnett interviewed Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, about whether the FBI would be able to discover the contents of past telephone conversations between the two. He quite clearly insisted that they could:
BURNETT: Tim, is there any way, obviously, there is a voice mail they can try to get the phone companies to give that up at this point. It's not a voice mail. It's just a conversation. There's no way they actually can find out what happened, right, unless she tells them?

CLEMENTE: "No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It's not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out.

BURNETT: "So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is incredible.

CLEMENTE: "No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not."

"All of that stuff" - meaning every telephone conversation Americans have with one another on US soil, with or without a search warrant - "is being captured as we speak".

On Thursday night, Clemente again appeared on CNN, this time with host Carol Costello, and she asked him about those remarks. He reiterated what he said the night before but added expressly that "all digital communications in the past" are recorded and stored:

Let's repeat that last part: "no digital communication is secure", by which he means not that any communication is susceptible to government interception as it happens (although that is true), but far beyond that: all digital communications - meaning telephone calls, emails, online chats and the like - are automatically recorded and stored and accessible to the government after the fact. To describe that is to define what a ubiquitous, limitless Surveillance State is.

There have been some previous indications that this is true. Former AT&T engineer Mark Klein revealed that AT&T and other telecoms had built a special network that allowed the National Security Agency full and unfettered access to data about the telephone calls and the content of email communications for all of their customers. Specifically, Klein explained "that the NSA set up a system that vacuumed up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans with the cooperation of AT&T" and that "contrary to the government's depiction of its surveillance program as aimed at overseas terrorists . . . much of the data sent through AT&T to the NSA was purely domestic." But his amazing revelations were mostly ignored and, when Congress retroactively immunized the nation's telecom giants for their participation in the illegal Bush spying programs, Klein's claims (by design) were prevented from being adjudicated in court.

That every single telephone call is recorded and stored would also explain this extraordinary revelation by the Washington Post in 2010:

Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.

It would also help explain the revelations of former NSA official William Binney, who resigned from the agency in protest over its systemic spying on the domestic communications of US citizens, that the US government has "assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about US citizens with other US citizens" (which counts only communications transactions and not financial and other transactions), and that "the data that's being assembled is about everybody. And from that data, then they can target anyone they want."

Despite the extreme secrecy behind which these surveillance programs operate, there have been periodic reports of serious abuse. Two Democratic Senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, have been warning for years that Americans would be "stunned" to learn what the US government is doing in terms of secret surveillance.

Strangely, back in 2002 - when hysteria over the 9/11 attacks (and thus acquiescence to government power) was at its peak - the Pentagon's attempt to implement what it called the "Total Information Awareness" program (TIA) sparked so much public controversy that it had to be official scrapped. But it has been incrementally re-instituted - without the creepy (though honest) name and all-seeing-eye logo - with little controversy or even notice.

Back in 2010, worldwide controversy erupted when the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates banned the use of Blackberries because some communications were inaccessible to government intelligence agencies, and that could not be tolerated. The Obama administration condemned this move on the ground that it threatened core freedoms, only to turn around six weeks later and demand that all forms of digital communications allow the US government backdoor access to intercept them. Put another way, the US government embraced exactly the same rationale invoked by the UAE and Saudi agencies: that no communications can be off limits. Indeed, the UAE, when responding to condemnations from the Obama administration, noted that it was simply doing exactly that which the US government does:
"'In fact, the UAE is exercising its sovereign right and is asking for exactly the same regulatory compliance - and with the same principles of judicial and regulatory oversight - that Blackberry grants the US and other governments and nothing more,' [UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al] Otaiba said. 'Importantly, the UAE requires the same compliance as the US for the very same reasons: to protect national security and to assist in law enforcement.'"

That no human communications can be allowed to take place without the scrutinizing eye of the US government is indeed the animating principle of the US Surveillance State. Still, this revelation, made in passing on CNN, that every single telephone call made by and among Americans is recorded and stored is something which most people undoubtedly do not know, even if the small group of people who focus on surveillance issues believed it to be true (clearly, both Burnett and Costello were shocked to hear this).

Some new polling suggests that Americans, even after the Boston attack, are growing increasingly concerned about erosions of civil liberties in the name of Terrorism. Even those people who claim it does not matter instinctively understand the value of personal privacy: they put locks on their bedroom doors and vigilantly safeguard their email passwords. That's why the US government so desperately maintains a wall of secrecy around their surveillance capabilities: because they fear that people will find their behavior unacceptably intrusive and threatening, as they did even back in 2002 when John Poindexter's TIA was unveiled.

Mass surveillance is the hallmark of a tyrannical political culture. But whatever one's views on that, the more that is known about what the US government and its surveillance agencies are doing, the better. This admission by this former FBI agent on CNN gives a very good sense for just how limitless these activities are.

May the 4th be with you: It's FREE COMIC DAY!!!

Average Income For The Bottom 90 Percent Of Americans Grew Just $59 In 40 Years

By Travis Waldron | ThinkProgress

The top 10 percent of Americans have experienced rapid income growth over the last 40 years, but the bottom 90 percent haven’t been so lucky. In fact, average income rose just $59 from 1966 to 2011 for the bottom 90 percent once those incomes were adjusted for inflation.

That’s according to a new study of tax data from David Cay Johnston, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing about tax policy. While the bottom 90 percent’s incomes rose just $59, the top 10 percent fared much better, he found:
In 2011 the average AGI of the vast majority fell to $30,437 per taxpayer, its lowest level since 1966 when measured in 2011 dollars. The vast majority averaged a mere $59 more in 2011 than in 1966. For the top 10 percent, by the same measures, average income rose by $116,071 to $254,864, an increase of 84 percent over 1966.

The difference in those gains has reduced the share of income the bottom 90 percent holds as well. That segment held two-thirds of all household income in 1966 but just 51.8 percent in 2011, Cay Johnston found. Other studies have had similar results. One study found that pay for chief executives increased 127 times faster than worker pay over the last 30 years, and official data has shown worker wages stagnating since the 1970s. That has led to a sharp increase in American income inequality, which now rivals rates from countries like the Ivory Coast and Pakistan.

The biggest driver in that disparity, Cay Johnston wrote, was not that the rich were working harder, “but the shift of income from labor to capital and changes in federal income, gift, and estate tax rules.” Indeed, the estate tax has been eased over recent decades and federal income taxes have become more favorable to the wealthy thanks to breaks for investment income. A recent study, in fact, found that the capital gains tax cut, which benefits the wealthy but does virtually nothing for everyone else, was “by far” the biggest driver in the growth of American income inequality. (HT: Huffington Post)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Study finds 'soup of toxic chemicals' in the air near Arkansas ExxonMobil spill site

RT: April 30, 2013 04:03

While many questions remain following ExxonMobil’s March 29 tar sands oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, a new independent study has revealed the existence of high levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the area.

The new research, co-published by the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group and Global Community Monitor, indicates that the 500,000 gallons of heavy bitumen oil released by a gash in ExxonMobil’s aging Pegasus pipeline has released hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) as defined by the 1990 US Clean Air Act.

According to a press release in conjunction with the new study, the total of 30 toxic chemicals include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, n-hexane and xylenes. Consequences of exposure to these chemicals include damage to the human nervous system, muscular weakness and blurred vision, while breathing ethylbenzene and benzene in particular can cause cancer and reproductive issues.

According to April Lane of the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group, health reports collected from residents in the four weeks following the spill show they are demonstrating symptoms consistent with exposure to hazardous chemicals and independent air testing.

“Even four weeks later, residents are still feeling symptoms from the chemical exposure. People have consistently talked about gastrointestinal problems, headaches, respiratory problems, skin irritation including chemical burns, and extreme fatigue,” says Lane.

According to Dr. Neil Carman, a member of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and a former member of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, analysis of these HAPs could present any number of public health concerns.

“Thirty toxic hydrocarbons were measured above the detection limits. Each of the thirty hydrocarbons measured in the Mayflower release is a toxic chemical on its own and may pose a threat to human health depending on various exposure and individual factors,” said Carman, who described the ambient air in the affected spill region as a “soup of toxic chemicals.”

The study comes only a week after another independent test performed by Opflex Solutions on nearby Lake Conway disputed ExxonMobil’s claims that bitumen heavy crude oil had not reached the lake.

While the oil giant’s official statement read that “the main body of Lake Conway and Palarm Creek remain oil free,” the CEO of Opflex, a company specializing in oil spill cleanups, confirmed a different truth.

"Yes, there's oil in Lake Conway and there's oil downstream flowing into the Arkansas River," said Smith. "I have found methylene chloride and barium in concentrations indicative of tar sands oil," he added.

According to Inside Climate News, which has been closely following ExxonMobil’s response during the Mayflower spill’s cleanup, a number of discrepancies in its statements make it unclear when the Pegasus pipeline began leaking, how the company found out about the initial spill, or how quickly the company moved to contain the breach.

As of yet, a definitive answer on how much oil spilled from the 22-foot-long pipeline gash remains in dispute. Three groups are currently looking into the spill: The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), US Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. McDaniel recently received over 12,500 pages of documents from ExxonMobil following a subpoena.

Last week, local news channel THV11 reported on a Mayflower town hall meeting hosted by the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group. At that meeting John Hammons, a local resident near a smaller body of water adjacent to Lake Conway, reported his concern of consequences from oil spill contamination:

"We can smell it. So I know it's there," Hammons said, who is concerned for his wife, who is seven months pregnant."She's broken out in hives, had nose bleeds, (and) respiratory problems," added Hammons.

See also:

ExxonMobil keeping quiet as Mayflower residents report increasing health problems

Fresh ExxonMobil pipeline spill hits Missouri

RT: May 02, 2013 02:03

While questions over the severity of ExxonMobil’s March 29 oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas still remain, the same pipeline has now ruptured, this time to the north, in Missouri.

The 70-year-old Pegasus pipeline, which released thousands of barrels of tar sands oil in Arkansas, has now caused another, albeit far smaller incident in Ripley County, Missouri, 200 miles north of Mayflower, Arkansas.

A resident notified ExxonMobil after spotting a patch of oil and dead vegetation in their yard outside the town of Doniphan, according to Reuters.

Luckily, unlike the spill that is still ongoing in Mayflower, the latest breach seems so far to be minor, with an estimated one barrel of crude oil having been leaked. According to an Exxon spokeswoman the cleanup operation there was “close to completion.”

Originally built in the late 1940s, the Pegasus is now the subject of severe scrutiny, as many environmentalists argue that the increased corrosive impact of transporting tar sands oil presents a greater concern than other forms of oil. It is worth noting that the pipeline was shut down following the Arkansas spill, and leaked in Missouri despite being out of operation.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is ultimately responsible for approving the Pegasus pipeline's restart. That agency did not immediately respond to Reuters on Wednesday regarding the Missouri leak, and whether that may delay reactivation.

On April 26 the PHMSA released a new report on the Mayflower spill that shed light on several new details. Of the approximately 5,000 barrels of crude oil involved in the pipeline breach, less than half had been cleaned up by ExxonMobil.
The report also pointed to the contamination of surface water, accounting for 2,000 barrels of oil located in ditches and a cove south of nearby Lake Conway. Though the latest report does not seem to indicate that oil reached the larger body of Lake Conway, an independent study conducted by Opflex Solutions indicated otherwise.

As for the breach of the pipeline itself, according to the PHMSA that was caused by a“longitudinal rupture” in the pipe seam, originally laid down in 1947. The 20-inch, 858-mile Pegasus line delivers Western Canadian crude oil (or tar sands oil) from the Patoka Oil Terminal Hub in Illinois to refineries in Nederland, Texas.

Americans troubled more by governmental abuse than terrorism

RT: April 29, 2013 17:55

New polling numbers suggest that United States citizens are on average more afraid of their own government then the threat of another terrorist attack.

Even after a pair of bombings in Boston two weeks ago injured hundreds, more Americans say they are unwilling to sacrifice constitutional liberties for security than those who are.
A handful of polls conducted in the days after the Boston Marathon bombings show that US citizens are responding much differently than in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that killed roughly 3,000 people. Not only are Americans more opposed now to giving up personal freedoms for the sake of security than they were after 9/11, but other statistics show that distrust against the federal government continues to climb.

Just one day after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, pollsters with Fox News asked a sample of Americans, “Would you be willing to give up some of your personal freedom in order to reduce the threat of terrorism?” Forty-three percent of the respondents said they would, while 45 percent said no. Comparatively, 71 percent of Americans asked a similar question in October 2001 said they’d be willing to give up personal freedoms, while only 20 percent opposed at the time.

In the dozen years since 9/11, frequent polling conducted by Fox has suggests that the majority of Americans have all the while said they’d give up their freedoms for the sake of security. Only with the latest inquiry though are those answers reversed: the last time a majority of Americans opposed giving up privacy for security was May 2001.

“Whether or not the government overreacted in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Americans then broadly supported a vigorous domestic counterterrorism policy,” Alan Rozenshtein writes for Lawfare Blog. “This time around, a rights-restrictive approach might not garner the same public support — if indeed that’s the road the government intends to go down.”

Indeed, a number of cities across the country have already asked for more surveillance cameras and other tactics that could be used to allegedly prevent acts of terror in the wake of the Boston bombing, but lawmakers in Washington have yet to impose the sort of restrictions on constitutional liberties that came in the aftermath of 9/11 — namely the PATROIT Act and the establishment of the US Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration.
A separate poll conducted by the Washington Post just three days after the Boston Marathon bombing reveals that nearly half of those surveyed say that the government will go too far in trying to prevent future acts of terrorism. The Post asked a random national sample of 588 adults, “Which worries you more: that the government (will not go far enough to investigate terrorism because of concerns about constitutional rights), or that it (will go too far in compromising constitutional rights in order to investigate terrorism)?” Days after the Boston bombing, 41 percent of respondents said the government will not go far enough, compared to 48 percent saying they’ll go too far. When similar questions were asked in 2006 and 2010, 44 percent and 27 percent said the government will go too far, respectively, signaling that for the first time in years Americans are overly concerned about a misuse of power on the part of Washington.

That isn’t to say that the Boston attack is necessarily inspiring Americans to question authority, though. Two months before Tsarnaev brothers allegedly detonated a pair of explosives near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, 53 percent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center said the federal government is threatening their personal rights and freedoms. In November 2011, that statistic was only 30 percent.

Toxic Chemicals Found in Thousands of Children's Products

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 by Common Dreams
Walmart among major manufacturers selling products without any "standards"
- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Thousands of name brand children's products that line the shelves of big chain stores contain toxic chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and reproductive problems, according to an analysis released Wednesday by watchdog group the Washington Toxics Coalition.

Children's car seats were among the products identified as containing toxic flame retardants.

The study, called Chemicals Revealed, identified over 5000 children's products such as clothing, car seats and personal care products that include developmental or reproductive toxins and carcinogens.

"The data shows store shelves remain full of toxic chemicals that we know are a concern for children’s health,” said report author Erika Schreder, science director for the Washington Toxics Coalition.

The group analyzed a series of reports filed under Washington State’s Children’s Safe Products Act of 2008, which requires major children's product manufacturers to report the presence of toxic chemicals in their products—though not the exact product itself. Washington State is the first state to have a comprehensive chemical reporting program.

Some examples include: Hallmark party hats containing cancer-causing arsenic, Graco car seats containing the toxic flame retardant TBBPA (tetrabromobisphenol A) and Walmart dolls containing hormone-disrupting bisphenol A.

"For most products in our homes, including children’s products, we simply don’t have standards," added Schreder. "Manufacturers are allowed to use just about anything they want to."

The study identified a number of major manufacturers who reported using the chemicals in their products including Walmart, Gap, Gymboree, Hallmark, and H&M.

Walmart alone reported a total of 459 instances of products containing chemicals including arsenic, cadmium, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and mercury.
The retail giant has fought particularly hard against consumer protection legislation in Washington. Most recently, the company led a coalition against the Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act (HB 1294), which failed in the state legislature but would have required manufacturers to stop using toxic flame retardants in children’s products.

"It is particularly disturbing to see the large numbers of products reported by Walmart at the same time the company has been working to defeat Washington’s bill that would address some of the most problematic uses," said Schreder. "Companies like Walmart need to show they’re serious about children’s health by getting toxic chemicals out of their products and supporting common-sense legislation."

"The biggest thing that this [report] does is to demonstrate a system that’s broken, and to ask for better protection," added Sarah Doll of Safer States, which is part of a network of environmental health groups nationwide.

Some other major findings from the reports include:

  • More than 5,000 products have been reported to date as containing a chemical on Washington State’s list of 66 Chemicals of High Concern to Children.
  • Products reported so far include children’s clothing and footwear, personal care products, baby products, toys, car seats, and arts and craft supplies.
  • Toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, cobalt, antimony, and molybdenum were reported, with cobalt being the metal most often reported.
  • Manufacturers reported using phthalates in clothing, toys, bedding, and baby products.
  • Other chemicals reported include solvents like ethylene glycol and methyl ethyl ketone, and a compound used in silicone known as octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane.

You can view the full analysis of the reports here.

Fracking Ourselves to Death in America

Thursday, May 2, 2013 by
The Downwinders: In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, big energy equals big pollution
by Ellen Cantarow

More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington State and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded “the most contaminated place in the world.” As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the U.S. government agencies responsible.

Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging industry pushes the next wonder technology -- in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. “In my opinion,” says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning.”

The process of “fracking” starts by drilling a mile or more vertically, then outward laterally into 500-million-year-old shale formations, the remains of oceans that once flowed over parts of North America. Millions of gallons of chemical and sand-laced water are then propelled into the ground at high pressures, fracturing the shale and forcing the methane it contains out. With the release of that gas come thousands of gallons of contaminated water. This “flowback” fluid contains the original fracking chemicals, plus heavy metals and radioactive material that also lay safely buried in the shale.

The industry that uses this technology calls its product “natural gas,” but there’s nothing natural about up-ending half a billion years of safe storage of methane and everything that surrounds it. It is, in fact, an act of ecological violence around which alien infrastructures -- compressor stations that compact the gas for pipeline transport, ponds of contaminated flowback, flare stacks that burn off gas impurities, diesel trucks in quantity, thousands of miles of pipelines, and more -- have metastasized across rural America, pumping carcinogens and toxins into water, air, and soil.

"Natural gas corporations... are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals and schools inside their industrial space.”

Sixty percent of Pennsylvania lies over a huge shale sprawl called the Marcellus, and that has been in the fracking industry’s sights since 2008. The corporations that are exploiting the shale come to the state with lavish federal entitlements: exemptions from the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Clean Drinking Water Acts, as well as the Superfund Act, which requires cleanup of hazardous substances. The industry doesn’t have to call its trillions of gallons of annual waste “hazardous.” Instead, it uses euphemisms like “residual waste.” In addition, fracking companies are allowed to keep secret many of the chemicals they use.

Pennsylvania, in turn, adds its own privileges. A revolving door shuttles former legislators, governors, and officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) into gas industry positions. The DEP itself is now the object of a lawsuit that charges the agency with producing deceptive lab reports, and then using them to dismiss homeowners’ complaints that shale gas corporations have contaminated their water, making them sick. The people I interviewed have their own nickname for the DEP: “Don’t Expect Protection.”

The Downwinders

Randy Moyer is a pleasant-faced, bearded 49-year-old whose drawl reminds you that Portage, his hardscrabble hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania, is part of Appalachia. He worked 18 years -- until gasoline prices got too steep -- driving his own rigs to haul waste in New York and New Jersey. Then what looked like a great opportunity presented itself: $25 an hour working for a hydraulic-fracturing subcontractor in northeastern Pennsylvania.

In addition to hauling fracking liquid, water, and waste, Randy also did what’s called, with no irony, “environmental.” He climbed into large vats to squeegee out the remains of fracking fluid. He also cleaned the huge mats laid down around the wells to even the ground out for truck traffic. Those mats get saturated with “drilling mud,” a viscous, chemical-laden fluid that eases the passage of the drills into the shale. What his employer never told him was that the drilling mud, as well as the wastewater from fracking, is not only highly toxic, but radioactive.

In the wee hours of a very cold day in November 2011, he stood in a huge basin at a well site, washing 1,000 mats with high-pressure hoses, taking breaks every so often to warm his feet in his truck. “I took off my shoes and my feet were as red as a tomato,” he told me. When the air from the heater hit them, he “nearly went through the roof.”

Once at home, he scrubbed his feet, but the excruciating pain didn’t abate. A “rash” that covered his feet soon spread up to his torso. A year and a half later, the skin inflammation still recurs. His upper lip repeatedly swells. A couple of times his tongue swelled so large that he had press it down with a spoon to be able to breathe. “I’ve been fried for over 13 months with this stuff,” he told me in late January. “I can just imagine what hell is like. It feels like I’m absolutely on fire.”

Family and friends have taken Moyer to emergency rooms at least four times. He has consulted more than 40 doctors. No one can say what caused the rashes, or his headaches, migraines, chest pain, and irregular heartbeat, or the shooting pains down his back and legs, his blurred vision, vertigo, memory loss, the constant white noise in his ears, and the breathing troubles that require him to stash inhalers throughout his small apartment.

In an earlier era, workers’ illnesses fell into the realm of “industrial medicine.” But these days, when it comes to the U.S. fracking industry, the canaries aren’t restricted to the coalmines. People like Randy seem to be the harbingers of what happens when a toxic environment is no longer buried miles beneath the earth. The gas fields that evidently poisoned him are located near thriving communities. “For just about every other industry I can imagine,” says Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, coauthor of a landmark study that established fracking’s colossal greenhouse-gas footprint, “from making paint, building a toaster, building an automobile, those traditional kinds of industry occur in a zoned industrial area, inside of buildings, separated from home and farm, separated from schools.” By contrast, natural gas corporations, he says, “are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals and schools inside their industrial space.”

The Death and Life of Little Rose

Little Rose was Angel Smith’s favorite horse. When the vet shod her, Angel told me proudly, she obligingly lifted the next hoof as soon as the previous one was done. “Wanna eat, Rosie?” Angel would ask, and Rosie would nod her head. “Are you sure?” Angel would tease, and Rosie would raise one foreleg, clicking her teeth together. In Clearville, just south of Portage, Angel rode Little Rose in parades, carrying the family’s American flag.

In 2002, a “landman” knocked on the door and asked Angel and her husband Wayne to lease the gas rights of their 115-acre farm to the San Francisco-based energy corporation PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric.) At first, he was polite, but then he started bullying. “All your neighbors have signed. If you don’t, we’ll just suck the gas from under your land.” Perhaps from weariness and a lack of information (almost no one outside the industry then knew anything about high-volume hydraulic fracturing), they agreed. Drilling began in 2002 on neighbors’ land and in 2005 on the Smith’s.

On January 30, 2007, Little Rose staggered, fell, and couldn’t get up. Her legs moved spasmodically. When Wayne and Angel dragged her to a sitting position, she’d just collapse again. “I called every vet in the phone book,” says Angel. “They all said, ‘Shoot her.’” The couple couldn’t bear to do it. After two days, a neighbor shot her. “It was our choice,” says Angel, her voice breaking. “She was my best friend.”

Soon, the Smiths’ cows began showing similar symptoms. Those that didn’t die began aborting or giving birth to dead calves. All the chickens died, too. So did the barn cats. And so did three beloved dogs, none of them old, all previously healthy. A 2012 study by Michelle Bamberger and Cornell University pharmacology professor Robert Oswald indicates that, in the gas fields, these are typical symptoms in animals and often serve as early warning signs for their owners’ subsequent illnesses.

The Smiths asked the DEP to test their water. The agency told them that it was safe to drink, but Angel Smith says that subsequent testing by Pennsylvania State University investigators revealed high levels of arsenic.

Meanwhile, the couple began suffering from headaches, nosebleeds, fatigue, throat and eye irritation, and shortness of breath. Wayne’s belly began swelling oddly, even though, says Angel, he isn’t heavy. X-rays of his lungs showed scarring and calcium deposits. A blood analysis revealed cirrhosis of the liver. “Get him to stop drinking,” said the doctor who drew Angel aside after the results came in. “Wayne doesn’t drink,” she replied. Neither does Angel, who at 42 now has liver disease.

By the time the animals began dying, five high-volume wells had been drilled on neighbors’ land. Soon, water started bubbling up under their barn floor and an oily sheen and foam appeared on their pond. In 2008, a compressor station was built half a mile away. These facilities, which compress natural gas for pipeline transport, emit known carcinogens and toxins like benzene and toluene.

The Smiths say people they know elsewhere in Clearville have had similar health problems, as have their animals. For a while they thought their own animals’ troubles were over, but just this past February several cows aborted. The couple would like to move away, but can’t. No one will buy their land.

The Museum of Fracking

Unlike the Smiths, David and Linda Headley didn’t lease their land. In 2005, when they bought their farm in Smithfield, they opted not to pay for the gas rights under their land. The shallow gas drilling their parents had known seemed part of a bygone era and the expense hardly seemed worth the bother.

With its hills and valleys, the creek running through their land, and a spring that supplied them with water, the land seemed perfect for hiking, swimming, and raising their son Grant. Adam was born after all the trouble started.

Just as the couple had completed the purchase, the bulldozers moved in. The previous owner had leased the gas rights without telling them. And so they found themselves, as they would later put it, mere “caretakers” on a corporate estate.

Today, the Headleys’ property is a kind of museum of fracking. There are five wells, all with attendant tanks that separate liquids from the gas, and a brine tank where flowback is stored. Four of the wells are low-volume vertical ones, which use a fracking technology that predates today’s high-volume method. A couple minutes’ walk from the Headleys’ front door stands a high-volume well. A pipeline was drilled under their creek.

“Accidents” have been a constant. When the well closest to the house was fracked, their spring, which had abounded in vegetation, crawfish, and insects, went bad. The DEP told the Headleys, as it did the Smiths, that the water was still safe to drink. But, says David, “everything in the spring died and turned white.” Adam had just been born. “No way was I exposing my kids to that.” For two years he hauled water to the house from the homes of family and friends and then he had it connected to a city water line.

All the brine tanks have leaked toxic waste onto the Headley’s land. Contaminated soil from around the high-volume tank has been alternately stored in dumpsters and in an open pit next to the well. The Headleys begged the DEP to have it removed. David says an agency representative told them the waste would have to be tested for radioactivity first. Eventually, some of it was hauled away; the rest was buried under the Headleys’ land. The test for radioactivity is still pending, though David has his own Geiger counter which has measured high levels at the site of the well.

An independent environmental organization, Earthworks, included the Headleys among 55 households it surveyed in a recent study of health problems near gas facilities. Testing showed high levels of contaminants in the Headleys’ air, including chloromethane, a neurotoxin, and trichloroethene, a known carcinogen.

Perhaps more telling is the simple fact that everyone in the family is sick. Seventeen-year-old Grant has rashes that, like Randy Moyer’s, periodically appear on different parts of his body. Four-year-old Adam suffers from stomach cramps that make him scream. David says he and Linda have both had “terrible joint pain. It’s weird stuff, your left elbow, your right hip, then you’ll feel good for three days, and it’ll be your back.” At 42, with no previous family history of either arthritis or asthma, Linda has been diagnosed with both. Everyone has had nosebleeds -- including the horses.

Five years into the Marcellus gas rush in this part of Pennsylvania, symptoms like Randy Moyer’s, the Smiths', and the Headleys' are increasingly common. Children are experiencing problems the young almost never have, like joint pain and forgetfulness. Animal disorders and deaths are widespread. The Earthworks study suggests that living closer to gas-field infrastructure increases the severity of 25 common symptoms, including skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and nausea.

Don’t Expect Protection

DEP whistleblowers have disclosed that the agency purposely restricts its chemical testing so as to reduce evidence of harm to landowners. A resident in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Washington County is suing the agency for failing fully to investigate the drilling-related air and water contamination that she says has made her sick. In connection with the lawsuit, Democratic state representative Jesse White has demanded that state and federal agencies investigate the DEP for “alleged misconduct and fraud.”

In the absence of any genuine state protection, independent scientists have been left to fill the gap. But as the industry careens forward, matching symptoms with potential causes is a constant catch-up effort. A 2011 study by Theo Colborn, founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange and recipient the National Council for Science and Environment’s Lifetime Achievement Award, identified 353 industry chemicals that could damage the skin, the brain, the respiratory, gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine (hormone production) systems. Twenty-five percent of the chemicals found by the study could cause cancers.

David Brown is a veteran toxicologist and consultant for an independent environmental health organization, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. According to him, there are four routes of exposure to gas-field chemicals: water, air, soil, and food. In other words, virtually everything that surrounds us.

Exposure to water comes from drinking, but showering and bathing makes possible water exposure through the skin and inhaling water vapor. “Air exposure is even more complicated,” says Brown. The impacts of contaminated air, for example, are greater during heavy activity. “Children running around,” he says, “are more apt to be exposed than older people.” What further complicates the emerging toxicology is that chemicals act not as single agents but synergistically. “The presence of one agent,” says Brown, “can increase the toxicity of another by several-fold.”

Brown deplores the government’s failures to heed citizens’ cries for help. “No one is asking, ‘What happened to you? Are there other people who have been affected in your area?’ I teach ethics. There’s a level of moral responsibility that we should have nationally. We seem to have decided that we need energy so badly... that we have in almost a passive sense identified individuals and areas to sacrifice.”

Circles of Trust

No one I interviewed in communities impacted by fracking in southwestern Pennsylvania drinks their water anymore. In fact, I came to think of a case of Poland Spring as a better house gift than any wine (and I wasn’t alone in that). Breathing the air is in a different universe of risk. You can’t bottle clean air, but you can donate air purifiers, as one interviewee, who prefers to be unnamed, has been doing.

Think of her as a creator of what a new Pennsylvania friend of mine calls “circles of trust.” The energy industry splits communities and families into warring factions. Such hostilities are easy to find, but in the midst of catastrophe I also found mutual assistance and a resurgence of the human drive for connection.

Ron Gulla, a John Deere heavy equipment salesman, is driven by fury at the corporation that ruined his soil -- his was the second farm in Pennsylvania to be fracked -- but also by deep feeling for the land: “A farm is just like raising a child. You take care of it, you nurture it, and you know when there are problems.”

Gulla credits Barbara Arindell, founder of the country’s first anti-fracking organization, Pennsylvania’s Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, with teaching him about the dangers of the industry’s efforts. Now, he is a central figure in an ever-widening network of people who are becoming their own documentarians. Everyone I interviewed brought out files of evidence to show me: photographs, videos, news reports, and their own written records of events.

Moreover, in the midst of ongoing stress, many have become activists. Linda Headley and Ron Gulla, for instance, traveled with other Pennsylvanians to Albany this past February to warn New York State officials not to endorse fracking. “A lot of people have said, ‘Why don’t you just walk away from this?’” says Gulla. “[But] I was raised to think that if there was something wrong, you would bring it to people’s attention.’”

“You have to believe things happen for a reason,” says David Headley. “It’s drawn so many people together we didn’t know before. You have these meetings, and you’re fighting [for] a common cause and you feel so close to the people you’re working with. Including you guys, the reporters. It’s made us like a big family. Really. You think you’re all alone, and somebody pops up. God always sends angels.”

Still, make no mistake: this is an alarming and growing public health emergency. “Short of relocating entire communities or banning fracking, ending airborne exposures cannot be done,” David Brown said in a recent address in New York State. “Our only option in Washington County... has been to try to find ways for residents to reduce their exposures and warn them when the air is especially dangerous to breathe.”

In the vacuum left by the state’s failure to offer protection to those living in fracking zones, volunteers, experts like Brown, and fledgling organizations like the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project have become the new protectors of citizens’ health. Growing numbers of fracking victims, including Angel and Wayne Smith, are also suing gas corporations. “If I could go back to 2000, I’d show them the end of the road and say, ‘Don’t come back,’” Angel told me. “But we’re in the situation now. Fight and go forward.”

Debtors Prisons Are Punishing the Poor Across America

A 19th century tool for instilling fear in the public to pay off debt
May 1, 2013 | AlterNet/By Bill Berkowitz

"In the 1990s, Jack [Dawley's] drug and alcohol addictions led to convictions for domestic violence and driving under the influence, resulting in nearly $1,500 in fines and costs in the Norwalk Municipal Court. Jack was also behind on his child support, which led to an out-of-state jail sentence." After serving three and a half years in Wisconsin, Dawley, now sober for 14 years, is still trying to catch up with the fines he owes, and it has "continue[d] to wreak havoc on his life."
Tricia Metcalf is a mother with sole custody of two teenagers. In 2006, Metcalf "was convicted of passing multiple bad checks. The fines mounted into the thousands. Unable to pay the total amount owed, Tricia entered into a payment plan of $50 per month." Although she's worked temporary jobs, a long-term job has been hard to find. "Whenever Tricia missed a payment, a warrant was issued and she was taken to jail."

The stories of Jack Dawley and Tricia Metcalf are only two of several compelling accounts in the ACLU's new report, The Outskirts of Hope: How Ohio's Debtors' Prisons Are Ruining Lives and Costing Communities .

The jailing of people unable to pay fines and court costs is no longer a relic of the 19th century American judicial system. Debtors' prisons are alive and well in one-third of the states in this country.

In 2011, Think Progress' Marie Diamond wrote: "Federal imprisonment for unpaid debt has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. It's a practice people associate more with the age of Dickens than modern-day America. But as more Americans struggle to pay their bills in the wake of the recession, collection agencies are using harsher methods to get their money, ushering in the return of debtor's prisons."

In 2010, the ACLU did a study titled In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons, which revealed the use of debtors prison practices in five states, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia and Washington.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson said:

"Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope - some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity."

Nearly 50 years after Johnson's address, which launched the "War on Poverty," "poverty in America has not dissipated," the ACLU's report states that "the number of people living in poverty in Ohio grew by 57.7% from 1999 to 2011, with the largest increase coming from suburban counties."

This year's ACLU report - which takes its name from a phrase in Johnson's speech - points out that many poor "Ohioans ... convicted of a criminal or traffic offense and sentenced to pay a fine an affluent defendant may simply pay ... and go on with his or her life [find the fine] unaffordable [launching] the beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time. The stark reality is that, in 2013, Ohioans are being repeatedly jailed simply for being too poor to pay fines."

According to the report, Ohio courts in Huron, Cuyahoga, and Erie counties "are among the worst offenders. In the second half of 2012, over 20% of all bookings in the Huron County Jail were related to failure to pay fines. In Cuyahoga County, the Parma Municipal Court jailed at least 45 people for failure to pay fines and costs between July 15 and August 31, 2012. During the same period in Erie County, the Sandusky Municipal Court jailed at least 75 people for similar charges."

Debtors' prisons are unconstitutional

If you are thinking that debtors' prisons must be unconstitutional, you are right. The ACLU report points out that the U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and Ohio Revised Code "all prohibit debtors' prisons."

"The law requires that, before jailing anyone for unpaid fines, courts must determine whether an individual is too poor to pay. Jailing a person who is unable to pay violates the law, and yet municipal courts and mayors' courts across the state continue this draconian practice."

The phenomenon of jailing people because they are unable to pay their fines and/or court costs isn't limited to Ohio. CBS Money Watch's Alain Sherter recently reported that "Roughly a third of U.S. states today jail people for not paying off their debts, from court-related fines and fees to credit card and car loans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Such practices contravene a 1983 United States Supreme Court ruling that they violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause."
Wreaking havoc on ordinary peoples' lives

Jack Dawley: "You'd go do your ten days, and they'd set you up a court date and give you another 90 days to pay or go back to jail... It was hard for me to obtain work, so I fell back into the cycle of going to jail every three months."

"I tried to pay my fines several times in multiple ways," Tricia Metcalf said. "I had even gone to churches and asked if there was any way they could help. There was nothing I could do. I asked the judge about community service." She even sold personal possessions, including her only mode of transportation to keep up with paying the fines. "Since 2006, Tricia has been incarcerated five times for failure to pay fines," causing major disruptions for her family.

There are several other compelling personal stories in the report.

Perhaps the most irrational aspect of the growing use of debtors' prisons during tough economic times when counties are stretched beyond their financial capabilities, is that they "actually waste taxpayer dollars by arresting and incarcerating people who will simply never be able to pay their fines, which are in any event usually smaller than the amount it costs to arrest and jail them."

The ACLU is calling on the Ohio Supreme Court "to institute administrative rules to ensure that all courts properly determine whether a person can afford to pay her criminal fines, in order to ensure that those who are unable to pay are not incarcerated for these debts."

"....Until the state Supreme Court takes action, thousands of Ohioans will continue to be relegated to the outskirts of hope, where the crime of poverty sentences them to a vicious cycle of incarceration, burdensome fees, and diminishing optimism for a better life. Our constitution - and our conscience - demand that Ohio courts do better."

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Tracking CEO Compensation

The Best Indicator of Inequality is the Gap Between What CEOs and Their Workers are Paid

Under current U.S. law, all our publicly traded corporations must annually disclose exactly what they pay their top executives. So why do all those CEO pay scorecards we see every spring show such different results?

USA Today found an 8 percent hike in 2012 CEO pay while The New York Times detected an 18.7 percent increase. Towers Watson, a corporate consulting firm, announced that CEO pay growth “slowed considerably,” rising at just a 1.2 percent rate last year.

What explains all these wildly divergent results? Let’s start with how corporations pay their top execs. This can get tricky.

Most executive pay today comes as stock-related compensation. Stock “options” give executives the right, down the road, to buy shares of their company stock at today’s share price. If that share price jumps, the execs can buy low and sell high. Instant windfall.

“Restricted” stock awards, on the other hand, give executives actual shares of stock, not just an option to buy them. Execs do have to wait a few years before they can actually claim these shares. No big deal. The shares will still have value in future years even if a company’s stock takes a hit.

But how should we value all this share-related compensation right now? Should CEO pay scorekeepers estimate how much stock awards granted this year will be worth in years to come? Or should scorekeepers only tally stock-related awards when execs actually profit personally from them?

Different executive pay scorekeepers give different answers. Scorekeepers also keep score on different sets of corporations. USA Today‘s new scorecard for 2012 tallies pay at 170 firms, the New York Times at just 100.

Given all this, do we have any single stat that tells us what we need to know? We do. That stat: the divide between worker and top executive pay.

America’s big-time CEOs, labor researchers at the AFL-CIO report, are now making 354 times the pay of average U.S. workers, the “largest pay gap in the world.”

Three decades ago, in 1982, American CEOs averaged just 42 times more than average U.S. workers. Two decades ago, in 1992, the gap stood at 201 times. A decade ago: 281 times.

The overall trend line, in other words, couldn’t be clearer. How can we reverse it? Identifying the specific pay gap between individual CEOs and their own workers would be a good first step.

Corporations have had to publish, for decades now, how much they pay their top execs. They haven’t had to reveal publicly how much — or how little — they pay their workers. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act enacted in 2010 changes this dynamic, at least on paper.

Dodd-Frank requires corporations to annually disclose the gap between what they pay their CEOs and their most typical workers. But a corporate lobbying blitz has kept the Securities and Exchange Commission from writing the regulations needed to enforce this disclosure mandate.

Why do our biggest corporations so fervently oppose disclosing their CEO-worker pay ratios? Disclosure by itself, after all, won’t shove down CEO pay levels. But disclosure could open the door to other steps that could curb CEO pay excess.

Lawmakers could, for instance, choose to deny government contracts or tax breaks to corporations that pay their top executives over 25 or even 50 times what their own workers are making.

Far-fetched? Current law already denies government contracts to companies that discriminate by race or gender in their employment practices. As a society, we’ve concluded that our tax dollars must not go to corporations that widen racial or gender inequality.

So why should we let our tax dollars enrich corporations that widen our economic divide?

Rainbows for the Ruling Class

Barackodile Tears

One of the great things about America is that it’s easy to be psychic here. This is the land of psychic opportunity. Anyone can hang out a shingle and predict the future. Anyone can read a palm that’s greased. If you want to know what’s going to happen next in America, all you have to do is ask yourself: what’s the most outrageous, ironic, perverted and soul-crushing thing that can happen in any given situation? Whatever that thing is, that’s what will happen. And you won’t have to wait long to see your prediction come true.

So it was that last week San Francisco Pride announced that jailed war crimes whistle blower Bradley Manning would be an honorary grand marshal for this year’s LGBT Pride Celebration. Before practically anyone had a chance to note how principled and inspiring Manning’s selection was, the decision was rescinded. Kevin Gosztola at firedoglake has an excellent overview and Glenn Greenwald has a list of all the corporate criminals that SF Pride takes money from and doesn’t find objectionable.

Most interesting to me was the slavish worship of authority in SF Pride president Lisa L. Williams statement announcing that Manning would not be an honorary grand marshal: “Bradley Manning is facing the military justice system of this country. We all await the decision of that system. However, until that time, even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform — and countless others, military and civilian alike — will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride. It is, and would be, an insult to every one, gay and straight, who has ever served in the military of this country.”

This is the same military “justice” system that gives out free passes and wrist slaps to the torturers of Abu Ghraib and the rapists and murderers of the children of Haditha, Iraq. The same system of “justice” that discourages female soldiers from reporting rape — and not a handful but the 20,000 servicewomen that even the Pentagon estimates are sexually assaulted every year, as noted in the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary Invisible War. So, yes, Ms. Williams, we eagerly await what the mass murdering rape-friendly torture enterprise has to say about a brave young person who blew the whistle on its crimes.

By exposing war crimes, Manning was actually doing his duty and nothing he did put the lives of American troops in danger. He caused embarrassment to the American empire because he showed that war crimes are routine. Everyone who raised hell with SF Pride’s original decision doesn’t, and can’t, name one instance of Manning putting a soldier’s life in danger because there weren’t any. If anything, Manning helped hasten the departure of America from Iraq and saved US soldiers’ lives. When the working class finally vanquishes the capitalist class, there will be monuments built to Manning — and molded clear plastic Bush and Obama heads used as urinals in hospitals. When you’re admitted to the hospital, a nurse will ask, similar to paper or plastic: “Democrat or Republican?” (After the revolution, hospitals are gonna be fun places that keep peoples’ spirits up.)

When reading Williams’ statement, keep in mind what Manning did: he made available to WikiLeaks an on-board video of American helicopter gunners mowing down two Reuters news staffers and several Iraqi civilians, including children and first responders and then joking about it. WikiLeaks released the film almost three years after the crime occurred. SF Pride is more incensed at Manning for exposing this atrocity than the commission of it. What wonderful Barackodile tears Williams cries for the “civilians” that she falsely implies that Manning ever put in danger. How repulsive can you get? (Barackodile tears are tears shed by America’s historic first black president about dead, generally white, children gunned down in massacres while he simultaneously murders brown-skinned children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc.)

Last week I wrote about unclassconscious people wandering around nowhere and in emptiness and mistakenly believing that they’re on the “left.” I called them desolationists. The dead end identity politics of SF Pride, which sells out a peace hero like Bradley Manning to curry favor with the American ruling class, is what I had in mind. The empire loves your tameness, irrelevance and cowardice, SF Pride. You don’t bother the American ruling class — a five foot two, 105 pound soldier does because he has a conscience and because he didn’t make comfort the guiding principle of his life. He went against the most powerful force on earth, the American military, and knew that he would pay an annihilating price for it. That’s why so many soldiers are so venomous toward Manning — he’s got much more courage and honor than they do and they know it. Pro-Manning comments are trouncing anti-Manning comments in online LGBT publications like Washington, DC’s Metro Weekly and the San Diego LGBT Weekly. So who, exactly, is Ms. Williams representing? Perhaps the Whitey House because, according to her bio, Williams “organized satellite offices for the Obama campaign.”

The American empire, its resource wars and racist occupations, the blowback it provokes and the inevitable reduction in civil liberties — these aren’t “issues” that have “two sides.” Congratulations, SF Pride, you’re totally assimilated with the America that is fearful and timid, the America that glorifies authority and welcomes fascism, as we just saw in Boston. Maybe you’ll feel better when a gay soldier’s boot is on your throat and you’re hearing them assert their equality: “I’m just doing my job. I’m just following orders.” Perhaps SF Pride will go all the way and appoint a gay soldier critical of Manning as the Grand Martial Law Marshal.

It would be awesome if thousands of participants at this year’s June 29-30 Pride Celebration wore Bradley Manning masks and kicked in a dollar each to his defense fund. SF Pride needs repudiated in a big way. And now I feel a psychic vision coming on: if SF Pride knew that thousands of participants were going to wear Bradley Manning masks, they would ban all masks for “everyone’s security.” They would say that they must be able to identify everyone and that they have a responsibility to keep everyone “safe” — they, like most Americans, just don’t feel any responsibility about stopping their representative government from slaughtering innocent Muslims. Up against the wall, turn your head and cough — and have a great time. And don’t ever forget: constantly bombing people keeps you free and safe. Can’t you feel the freedom closing in around you?

The Fight for GMO-Free Food

Why Labeling is a Minimum Demand

Will New York State be the first state in the nation to require the labeling of food containing what has become known as GMO—genetically modified organisms?

More than 60 countries have enacted laws banning the use of GMO in producing food or requiring the labeling of food with ingredients that have utilized genetic modification or genetic engineering. But because of heavy pressure by the biotechnology industry, there are no such laws or regulations in the United States.

There was an attempt in California in November to pass a referendum—Proposition 37—requiring labeling of GMO food. But despite initial strong public support, it failed after an advertising blitz led by biotech giant Monsanto.

“There was a very well-funded misinformation campaign,” said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute. “Forty-six million”—the amount of dollars industry poured into the campaign against the proposition, five times as much as labeling supporters—“buys an awful lot of confusion and misunderstanding,” he commented.

Now political action on a state level for labeling genetically modified food has come to New York with a bill before its State Legislature requiring it.

“Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, especially concerning products for which health and environmental concerns have been raised,” says the sponsor of the measure in the State Senate, Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson. A long-time educator and an attorney. he says: “My bill was introduced to give consumers the freedom to choose between GMOs and conventional products. Essentially, if a foodstuff is produced using genetic engineering, this must be indicated on its label.”

Kathleen Furey, education and media director of GMO Free NY——has been busy criss-crossing Long Island, New York City and elsewhere in the state challenging GMOs and pressing for passage of the proposed law.

Crops using GMOs were introduced commercially in the United States in 1996. But “Americans are still dining in the dark,” said Ms. Furey in a recent presentation in Sag Harbor, New York. Ms. Furey, a graduate of Stony Brook University’s Sustainability Studies Department with a degree in environmental humanities, said that now in the U.S., 88% of corn, 90% of sugar beets and 94% of soybeans are grown using GMO. Some 80% of “bottled, boxed or canned foods in the U.S.” contain GMO ingredients. And livestock feed “is comprised mostly of GMO corn and soybeans.” GMOs “dominate the agricultural landscape” of America today, she said.

People have “the right to make informed choices about what we eat,” she emphasized. “We have the right to be protected from food health risks and the right to stop being used as guinea pigs.”

GMO technology is used to create “transgenic species” of plants and animals. Through it, genes from one often unrelated species are introduced into another.

The biotechnology industry insists GMO technology doesn’t harm people and is useful. It points to how, with genetic modification, plants resistant to some pests have been developed.

But GMO opponents hold it is harmful and various uses have backfired. Moreover, they charge that the U.S. government—including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency empowered to protect Americans from contaminants in their food—has been acting as a rubber stamp for the biotechnology industry, doing its bidding. And it’s not that inside of government there isn’t an awareness of the dangers of GMOs, noted Ms. Furey. She pointed to “internal memos from FDA scientists citing the risks of GMO safety and toxicity that were disregarded by their superiors.”

On pest resistance through GMOs, Ms. Furey spoke of how “superbugs resistant to pest-resistanct GMO crops have evolved and are destroying those crops.” Also, “superweeds resistant to herbicides sprayed on GMO crops have evolved and caused farmers to spray more herbicide per acre and resort to the use of even more-toxic herbicides.”

Ms. Furey and GMO Free NY are supported by national organizations.

The Institute for Responsible Technology——based in Iowa, describes genetically modified foods as “not safe.” Its literature stresses a report by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine citing studies finding “serious health risks associated” with GMO food including “infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging…and changes to major organs and the gastrointestinal system.”

Food & Water Watch——headquartered in Washington, D.C., is warning on its website about the Food and Drug Administration now “paving the way for genetically engineered salmon,” which it calls “frankenfish.” This, furthermore, “would open the floodgates” for genetically modified “cows and pigs which biotech companies are waiting in the wings to finally commercialize after years of research and development.”

Just last month, the U.S. Congress passed and President Barack Obama approved what GMO foes call the “Monsanto the devil Protection Act”—a measure to last initially six months stripping federal courts of the authority to halt the planting and sale of genetically modified crops if litigation is brought alleging health risks. Ms. Furey calls it “incredibly unconstitutional.”

The reach of the biotechnology industry extends into the U.S. Supreme Court. The court had before it in February a case involving Monsanto the devil and genetically engineered seeds, yet Justice Clarence Thomas, formerly a Monsanto the devil attorney, refused to recuse himself. He refused to recuse himself, too, in 2010 in another case involving Monsanto the devil and GMO seeds and joined in the decision favoring Monsanto the devil’s position. “It’s outrageous,” says Ms. Furey.

Overall, the biotechnology industry’s drive for GMOs has been incredibly undemocratic and the process is quite likely unhealthy. Labeling is a minimum—so people can at least know what food is genetically modified and choose what’s still GMO-free.

Divided We Fall: a Tale of Two Economic Realities

The American Economy Continues to Slide, But There’s Plenty of Optimism at the Top

“Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” These lines from schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind open Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, which satirized the quantitative ethics of 19th century utilitarians. The simple premise of utilitarianism pioneered by Jeremy Bentham was that an action or policy should be judged by a single criterion: whether or not it contributed to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It can feel, living in the early 21st century, that our leaders are operating on a principle of anti-utility, seeking the greatest happiness of the numerical few. The Washington establishment would dispute the truth of this claim, but then, as three examples will suggest, elites answer to a separate reality. To paraphrase Scott Fitzgerald, let me tell you about the very rich. Their facts are different from yours and mine.

The C-Suite and Main Street

Earlier this month, March job figures coughed up a slim volume of 85,000 new jobs, and the unemployment rate ticked down to 7.6 percent from 7.7 percent in February. As happens every month in this comical pantomime, the facts are shotgunned into the public consciousness by venerable propagandists like The New York Times and Washington Post, and the semi-articulate cable networks. The State Department then steps forward to impart a few rosy sentiments, although providing the necessary cautionary language lest our optimism overwhelm us.

The positivity of the official interpretation of the jobs report was belied by the 663,000 more citizen-consumers who slipped behind the black curtain of idle despair (47 percent of them women), not even bothering to seek work. According to Mike Gimbel, an analyst for socialist weekly Workers World, adding the decrease in the active labor force to the number of workers with insufficient part-time work, the unemployment rates skyrockets north of 20 percent. Nearly 90 million American adults are now out of the labor market, a new threshold of despair. (That’s nine times the number of unemployed at the height of the Great Depression, when there were only 123 million people in the country.) The jobs report complemented the specter of the sequester or a grand bargain still swirling overhead, promising to slice four trillion dollars from the economy over the next decade.

Yet a recent Financial Times survey of 400 global senior executives reports new optimism among business leaders, who project economic and industry improvements in the next six months. This peculiar optimism of corporate leadership, even amid the collapsing scenery of American society, is revealing on two levels. First, it evinces the degree to which Fortune 500s have uncoupled themselves from the American consumer market. The United States may be sliding toward Third World conditions, but expanding segments of Brazil and China are racing toward First World abundance. These markets, not ours, have laid claim to the attentions of corporate profiteers. What does it matter to the multinational if median income in the U.S. has climbed a mere $59 since 1966, when Brazil’s per capita income has nearly doubled since 1999? One salient example: Nearly seventy percent of Coca-Cola’s revenue comes from outside the U.S. In the first quarter of 2013, its international sales volume grew three times as fast as its American volume. Over the next five years, Coke plans to spend $30 billion on international expansion in China, India, Russian, and the Middle East. So long as one continent is in the ascendant, the fall of another is of little interest.

Second, the survey elicits the degree to which Wall Street financial markets have untethered themselves from Main Street industry. Industrial manufacturing has been in heavy decline as a percentage of American GDP, from a peak of 34 percent in the fifties to about 11 percent now. Perhaps as corollary, the GDP share held by the financial sector is on a steady uptick, now over eight percent and rising, while the total turnover of financial markets is many times our GDP. Derivatives, exempted from tepid Dodd Frank controls, are being purchased in bulk every month by the Fed, which is also holding interest rates at zero, ensuring banks can borrow for nothing, swivel on a dime and fleece credit card desperados at 18% a month. Why should corporate leaders care that it is slowly gaining a huge reserve army of American labor, to use Karl Marx’s term, which it can one day play off against some arriviste working class in a BRIC country?

Madison Ave and the 90 Million

Much like the heady delirium in the boardroom, these shadow facts too infrequently penetrate the optimistic consciousness of our vast marketing industry. As oil pipelines hemorrhage and radioactive waters sieve into the soil, we are admonished by a new nationally broadcast ad for the Acura RXL: “You wake up in your luxury bed and slide out of your luxury sheets. You get into your luxury shower and dry off with your luxury towel. You put on your luxury suit and your luxury watch. You grab your luxury coffee from your luxury coffee maker, and add some luxury sugar. You step out of your luxury house and step into your luxury car…which makes everything else seem ordinary.” Another class of commercials trots out sonorous-voiced actors like Tommy Lee Jones to lean on farm fences and talk about retirement planning, while Matt Damon’s soothing voice reminds how “common sense” is all we need to build a halcyon tomorrow. It always seems a healthy number of the wide-grinned retirees portrayed zooming down the California coast are minorities, often the African-Americans who lost half their wealth during the housing collapse.

What must the mass unemployed think as the television drones forth with this condescending drivel? The Boston Globe reports on a study by the Urban Institute that claims Generation X and Y—the two generations following the Boomers—have saved less than their parents did in their early adulthood: “Stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities, and lost home values are behind the issue and have kept young Americans from saving even as the economy doubled from the early 1980s, the study found.”

The drear state of the economy is compound by what the young do to counteract it—take out loans. The Globe story notes, ‘’‘People in my generation are of the opinion that it’s OK to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans,’’ said Young, who graduated in May 2012. ‘‘That puts them in debt right away.’’’ The article concludes that, with no savings, Gen X and Y will rely more on the social safety net, the very programs millionaires Barack Obama and John Boehner are so anxious to cut. But millionaires can afford to be utopian, hence the blandishments about the road to a stronger America.

If the actor in the Acura commercial were a genuine luxury guy living a genuine luxury life, and his address were placed on a title screen at the end of the ad, I suspect a large mob drawn from the 90 million unemployed would soon descend on his luxury house. As Obama rather imperiously told a frightened assembly of derivatives kingpins during the collapse, “I’m the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks.” Of course, the commercial is just another tawdry piece of condescension foisted on the masses from Madison Avenue, but it artlessly demonstrates the second disconnect in our storyline—between the media and the masses. The Acura RXL lists at $48,450. Average per capita debt is $47,500.

The White House and the Poor House

It was Freud who said that if you wanted to know human nature, simply reverse its clearest moral injunctions. If we are forbidden to steal, it is because we are thieves. If adultery is verboten, it is because we are covetous. By that measure, perhaps we can discern the aims of Washington by reversing the desires of the American public. (Much like we can find countries that receive the most American aid by seeking out the nations with the most egregious human rights abuses.)

Testing Freud’s formula bears some interesting results. According to relentlessly consistent polling numbers, we oppose cuts to social spending such as education and Social Security and favor national health insurance provided by the government. Yet the policies we receive from either wing of the Business Party are healthcare reform that will leave millions still uninsured (but usefully fined), higher defense spending, lower education spending, and aggressive interventions across the planet. Far less than half of Americans want to prioritize immigration and gun control, but these topics dominate media coverage. We want jobs and a strong economy before a level deficit. Yet we get an austerity package designed to slow the economy and job growth. Even though our paychecks have flatlined for forty years, and our schools are growing poorer and our prescriptions dearer. Even though sixty percent of the jobs created by the stimulus were part time, and the piddling median wage in 2011 was $26,965.

At a macro level, the Freudian formula works the same. The Journal of the Academy of Arts & Sciences recently reported on the disparity between public opinion and policy. In polling, large majorities have favored federal policies to cut greenhouse emissions, even supporting tax breaks for corporations that reduce emissions—a stance that reflects global consensus on the reality of climate change and the need to do something about it. In fact, 118 countries have set national targets for renewable energy (RET). As the formula predicts, the U.S. has no national renewable energy target, placing it on the regressive right of the global political spectrum.

While nearly two thirds of Americans favorable developing renewables over oil, gas, and coal, we churn ahead with oil, gas, and coal exploration and encourage states to draft their own environmental targets. Extraction is keeping the federal government too busy to deal with such peripheral concerns. Substitute your own favorite federal failing and watch the formula work for you. Rather than prosperity, austerity. Rather than due process, solitary confinement. Instead of higher wages for Main Street, higher earnings for Wall Street. In lieu of jobs, offshoring. Instead of substance, rhetoric.

Here lies our third disconnect, between government and the people. Like the Wall Street and Madison Avenue realities, individuals in the highest echelons of federal power are wildly prosperous, moving seamlessly between the precincts of the state and the serene towers of global enterprise. They are showered with the patronage of both while employed by either, such that the distinctions between the two become opaque and nominal. The goals are common—dominion. The profits are shared—the costs socialized. And the media continually rehabilitates the profile of power like the Soviets rehabbed victims of the gulag—ex post facto. The facts of life for the obscenely rich are not like the facts for the majority. They are doing fabulously. Witness the outpouring of mawkishness in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death. In her first decade in power, she cut taxes on the wealthy by half while the income of the poor plummeted by forty percent. Who penned those lavish encomiums to sit atop Thatcher’s grave? Who but the survivors?

Interesting that the quote from Fitzgerald, about the rich being different from the rest of us, was from a set of short stories called All the Sad Young Men, largely about the rich and the shimmering anomie of the world they inhabited. Yet if the surveys, media, and policies on offer are any indication, all the sad young men have shed their survivor’s guilt and moved on. Life is a fairy tale waiting to be bought. Darker realities, like the distant wail of an ambulance, hardly register anymore.

Obama’s Absurd Sequester Scheme

Making a Terrible Situation Worse

The big talk in Washington this month is the sequester cuts. These cuts are roughly 8 percent of most areas of discretionary spending, both military and domestic. While the cuts became effective at the start of March, many will first begin to pinch this month since government contracts generally require 30 day advance notice for leaves or furloughs. This means that cuts in areas such as airport security, food inspectors, and air traffic controllers are just now taking effect.

The Democrats have been yelling loudly about the damage that these cuts will inflict on specific programs and the economy as a whole. They do have a case. The cuts will whittle back spending in a wide variety of areas. Some of these, like the cuts to airport security and food inspections will have an immediate impact. We will see longer lines at airports and are more likely to find ourselves eating contaminated meat.

The impact of other cuts, like reductions in spending on infrastructure maintenance and medical research, will only be seen over the long-term. We will see a gradual worsening in the quality of the infrastructure and less medical progress.

In addition, the reduction in spending at a time when the economy is already weak will further slow growth and weaken job creation. The March jobs report helped to remind everyone of this problem. The economy created just 88,000 jobs in March, less the number needed just to keep pace with the growth of the labor force.
For some bizarre reason, prior to the release of the report many economists were making bold claims about how the economy had turned the corner and the recovery was picking up steam. It’s not clear what these folks had been smoking.

The economy was growing at just a 1.7 percent annual rate in the second half of last year. The most recent data on new orders for equipment showed that investment was just even with its year ago pace. And the rate of job creation over the prior five months was actually down by an average of 40,000 from the same months a year earlier.
None of this looked like a story of accelerating growth. Thankfully the March jobs report helped bring the discussion of the economy back to reality. The experts again recognized that we have a problem of a seriously depressed economy that is at best just growing rapidly enough to keep pace with its underlying potential, meaning that it is making up none of the lost ground from the downturn.

In this context, the hit from the sequester is clearly bad news. The Congressional Budget Office projects that it will reduce growth in 2013 by 0.5 percentage points costing as many as 700,000 jobs. With the sequester in place there is a high probability that the unemployment rate will be higher at the end of the year than it was at the beginning.

But there is a limit to how much President Obama and the Democrats can really complain about the sequester. The reason is that President Obama himself set a course for large cuts in discretionary spending. His budget for 2012, which was put out before the deal with the Republican Congress, called for discretionary spending to be 7 percent less in 2021 than it had been in 2010, in nominal dollars. This budget would have implied cuts in services of more than 40 percent since the economy was projected to be more than 60 percent larger in 2021 than in 2012. This means that most of the bad stories that we are hearing about from the sequester cuts likely would have been the result of the cuts that President Obama had laid out himself, even if they would have been phased in more slowly.

The furloughs and layoffs of public sector workers also have their roots with President Obama. After all, it was his idea to freeze the pay of federal employees back in 2011, implying that we have a problem with overpaid government workers. Is it a surprise that the Republicans want to push the attack one step further?

And President Obama basically accepted the Republicans’ framing of the story of the downturn which turned reality on its head with the line about out of control budget deficits. Fans of arithmetic know that the large budget deficits are the result of the economic collapse. In fact budget deficits were modest prior to the downturn and were projected to remain small even if the Bush tax cuts were no allowed to expire at the end of 2010 as originally scheduled.

In this context, it is a bit hard to get too excited about the sequester. Yes, it is very bad news, but we were looking at the prospect of large cuts to the budget even before the sequester. And yes, it will slow growth and increase unemployment, but we were already looking at a government that seemed content to allow the country to needlessly lumber through a prolonged period of high unemployment.

The sequester makes a terrible situation somewhat worse, but the idea that everything would be just fine if we just stopped the sequester is nuts. We should be talking about reversing the austerity agenda more generally. The Democrats’ hysterics about the sequester should be recognized as the theater it is.

Even worse the idea pushed by President Obama, that we should be prepared to accept large cuts to Social Security and Medicare to get back to the slow motion sequester is almost too absurd for words
. If he raised this plan anywhere other than Washington he would have been laughed out of town. Certainly those of us who do not work for hacks and hedge funds should treat this scheme with the derision it deserves.