Category Archives: Business

Capitalism and Its Discontents: What Are We Living For?

Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.

— Max Horkheimer, from the essay “The Jews and Europe”, December 1939

Aren’t we all tired of capitalism? Haven’t most of us gotten sick of the drudgery, the monotony, the exploitation, sucking up to our bosses and management who pretend to care about the average worker? The drive to consume more and more has degraded all art, values, and sense of community in the US.

Capitalists literally are holding the people of the Earth in bondage. As liberal democracy crumbles in the West, the risk of neo-fascism continues to rise in North America and Europe.

It’s worth examining why the US has TV shows like “Hoarders”, where truly sick people have problems collecting useless crap, and where viewers publicly shame and judge the afflicted. Yet, where is the outrage at the real hoarders, the billionaires, the banks, and the military industrial complex? This is serious hypocrisy, a cultural blind spot: a double standard that is not being addressed by our society.

Capitalists are Addicts

Why does society not ask arch-capitalists the obvious questions: when is enough, enough? Who needs a billion dollars? Once you can provide a comfortable life for your family, children, and grandchildren, what is the point of hoarding your money in bank accounts and lording over a monopolizing mega-corporation? Where does this endless desire for more come from?

It’s fairly obvious that a failure to confront death is closely linked to the bottomless appetite exhibited by capitalists. The perceived need to construct towers, monuments, mansions, and manufactured narratives of their own greatness is proof. Not to mention how many of the super-rich have chosen to become cryogenically frozen post-mortem: this is in outright denial of their own mortality, and the necessity of death so that future generations may live.

In failing to confront death, any object can be used as a crutch, an addiction. Addiction is linked to social isolation and lack of community, which the capitalist class creates by artificially creating specialized divisions of labor, alienation, and class differences.

Addiction leads to a disconnection from what some would call a “reality principle”, leading to further and deeper indulgences and lack of restraint. There are further similarities between capitalists and drug addicts: the impatience, the disconnection from others, the neediness, as well as a general childlike need to be validated and pampered.

Methodology and Treatment in an Age of Insanity

We see where capitalism leads: to a permanent crisis, a never-ending state of emergency. Since the 1970s, workers have increased productivity mightily with little to zero increases in wages considering inflation and other factors. Americans are also working longer hours; young adults are even having less sex partly because of this. There is a huge problem with prescription drug abuse (not just opioids), teen suicide is rising (sadly, at a 40 year high for teen girls in 2017), and child poverty isn’t being addressed properly, if at all, by our own government.

All of these absolutely tragic issues are connected to capitalism. When we are forced to compete against each other, in grades at school, for that raise or promotion in the workplace, this breeds a mindset of dehumanization.

I would also posit that the separation of young children from their parents when they begin schooling, either day care or pre-school or kindergarten or afterwards, is one of the first steps in life where the feelings of individual atomization starts, and collective social disintegration begins. Being ripped from your parent’s arms because they have to work just to survive, and the state/private/charter school substituting for the role of a parent, is one of the first deep tragedies inflicted on many of us by the “needs” of the modern world. I believe this suffering is lodged deep in our unconscious selves, and this is not being addressed publicly at all, and barely acknowledged in our private lives.

Treatment starts when we want to become free of the Great Beast of capitalism, the “Babylon system” as some like to call it. We must ground ourselves, and return to a deeper relationship with our mother Earth. Self-reliance is true freedom, and families and communities should begin to grow as much of their own food as possible. I understand the limitations for those in urban areas, or those stuck in jobs where time and effort cannot be adequately put towards farming, of course. Collectively, as a city block, a suburban neighborhood, a rural township, we are all going to have to learn to get together, share food and technology, and become independent of this beast. We must begin to develop a gift economy, an indigenous-based economy, based on reciprocity and trust, not exploitation and coercion, as Charles Eisenstein explains.

Other than that, a mass protest movement must be created so the resources that our federal government receives in taxes can be shifted from weapons of destruction to schools, health care, community projects, and renewable energy.

Analyzing a Popular Alternative

I believe it’s important to discuss some of the budding alternatives to capitalism that are developing around the globe. In the US, support for socialism has risen immensely, especially among the younger crowd, thanks to the work of Bernie Sanders (notwithstanding him not really being a socialist) and others. Yet how serious are most American socialists?

One of the most popular groups in the US is called Socialist Alternative (SA), led by the charismatic Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant. SA has some great ideas, and yet, some of their proposals make it seem as if they’re just going through the motions. Let me explain.

On their about page, a few things stand out. They write: “We see the global capitalist system as the root cause of the economic crisis, poverty, discrimination, war, and environmental destruction.” Very well put. Yet then, this is followed by the line below:

“As capitalism moves deeper into crisis, a new generation of workers and youth must join together to take the top 500 corporations into public ownership under democratic control to end the ruling elites’ global competition for profits and power.”

This sounds nice, but I wonder how much time was really spent thinking through the implications of this policy. What if democratic control only leads to redistribution of the companies’ wealth, and not fundamental transformation of the products, resource usage, and dangerous working conditions?  Where is the sense of urgency, the fact that deadlines are being approached regarding global warming, regarding the ecological damage being done by these companies?

One wonders, has SA bothered to take a look at the list of the 500 top companies? For some, perhaps they can be repurposed to make sustainable products. For others, maybe the factories and warehouses can be dismantled and recycled for public use. For a few, it might be feasible that they could be broken up into smaller entities and non-profit co-operatives.

Yet, we must realize that these companies have only been able to thrive due to government tax breaks, insider trading, off-shoring hidden wealth, and other financial chicanery. Further, these mega corporations rely on specialized division of labor, fueling worker alienation.

Also, the biggest companies choose not to compete against each other in entire sectors, allowing for large profit margins. What happens when “public ownership” leads to stricter competition and price wars, forcing many employees to be laid off? How will these companies be able to compete against Europe and China? Is SA committed to local and bio-regional approaches to agricultural and socially responsible industrial practices?

For many of these companies, though, the only democratic thing I can think of to do is to vote on who gets to throw the first brick or Molotov through the empty building. These corporations have done irreparable harm to the planet. Some of them are simply not going to be able to be reformed.

The only way to transform these entities (the ones that can be saved) properly, with the proper protections, would be to rewrite the constitution to include environmental and social rights, as well as the rights of mother Earth, as Bolivia has done. Without a legal framework based on ecology, there is no way to make sure “democratic control” of a transnational corporation would actually lead to environmentally-safe production.

SA is notable for fighting for a $15 an hour wage. First, I want to say that I support this policy. It is a laudable goal, and may work soon in some of the nations wealthy, tech-savvy, coastal metro enclaves.

Yet we need to ask what would happen if this were enacted nationally, and what we should do to prepare if it ever does. The elites would pull their money out of the system, if only to spite the Left and the socialists who enacted the policy, and give them a taste of pain for disobeying capitalism. The neoliberal economy is designed around low-wage service work, and is so tightly interwoven, not to mention extremely monopolized, that a sudden wage rise would lead to high levels of inflation, and possibly to a severe economic recession or depression. Are groups like SA ready to organize outside the political structure, to make space for a civic society, domestically and abroad, which will need massive influxes of resources, food, and housing when shit hits the fan?

SA also wants to “slash the military budget”, which is great. SA does not clarify where that new money should go. SA also proclaims that they support internationalism. Allow me to make a proposal: money from the military budget should be given away freely to developing countries, with transnational groups, either under UN auspices or some new framework, helping distribute and allocate resources so they are not wasted by corrupt dictators and governments. Poorer nations will need massive influxes of revenue to help them develop and avoid using fossil fuels and habitat-destroying industry, in the realm of trillions of dollars over decades. The West has accumulated ill-gotten wealth from centuries of colonialism, chattel slavery, and genocidal policies towards the “Global South”, and now may be the last chance to give back, before it becomes too late.

Are US socialists committed to these sorts of radical proposals? Are SA and others ready to admit to its followers that real socialism will involve hard sacrifices, and almost certainly (in the short term, at least) lead to less material goods and privileges that Westerners have enjoyed for centuries? Are socialists as ready to support a living wage in China as they are in the USA? Finally, are American socialists committed to transforming the nation, or just promoting an ideology that is centered too much on human needs, and not enough on the needs of non-humans and future human generations?

Ecocentrism, not Anthropocentrism

The Left has been fragmented for decades. Liberals, socialists, communists, greens, and anarchists have all endlessly debated future models for society. One wonders how many are just talking, and how many are willing to listen? There already are models for society to live sustainably and to prosper, very, very old ways: by following the paths set by the indigenous.

For instance: by living in the moment, and observing things as they really are, it becomes quite clear that humanity is facing huge challenges unlike at any other time in history. Just one hundred companies have pumped out 70% of worldwide greenhouse gases since 1988. Is the answer, as SA has posited, really just to democratize these corporations and hope for the best, or to shut them down completely?

Westerners are going to have to realize very quickly that despite our space technology, skyscrapers, and instant media, we are the children in the room when it comes to ecological knowledge, and the indigenous around the world are the adults. Native American tribes and various indigenous peoples worldwide have catalogued thousands if not tens of thousands of local plants in their local ecosystems, often with hundreds of different uses for each individual plant. Indigenous accept their own mortality and have constructed elaborate rituals, ceremonies, and initiations to help each other confront death. Also, and this is critical, indigenous tribes understand their carrying capacity in their local habitat, so are able to regulate and rationally plan for their population levels. Overpopulation now threatens the world with ecosystem degradation, habitat destruction, global warming, resource wars, ocean acidification, plastics proliferation, pandemics, and mass starvation and drought.

The indigenous are plant people, and we can follow just a few basic ideas to help us escape capitalism: conserve what remains of the South American, African, and Southeast Asian rainforests, as many future cures from disease and chronic conditions will be found there. In the Americas, the milpa, a planting of corn, beans, squash, and various nutrient rich veggies allows for huge crop productivity in a small area. We can use hemp and legalize cannabis to make biofuels, produce paper, make innovate building materials like Hempcrete, and provide the masses with a safe, relaxing herb for recreational, medicinal, and spiritual use. Advanced technology in most scenarios will only make things worse. What is the best thing one can do to stop global warming? Not a solar array, but planting a tree. Slow down soil erosion? Plant a tree. What is resistance? Planting a community garden is a more socialist, a more significant thing to do now than attending another symposium on Marxism.

The indigenous are freer and happier than Westerners not by some innate abilities, but because they have chosen to work for their freedom: by co-producing food, tools, clothes, pottery, by hunting, fishing, and foraging together. Westerners have refused to resist thus far, because deep down, many know they are dependent on the system for survival, and don’t want to pull that plug, to bite the hand that feeds. It’s the only way, though. We are going to have to walk away from all this, and activists, protestors, and concerned citizens are going to have to metaphorically step into our own Lacandon jungle, and organize around ecology, democracy, and social justice.

Yet, we must realize that it is too late in the game to rely simply on voting. Citizens will respond to a mass movement to the degree that it represents the will of the people: to the degree it can articulate a political truth on a deeply visceral level. Most mainstream socialists (important exceptions being Ian Angus, Paul Burkett, and John Bellamy Foster) have so far been too committed to a flailing, abstract ideology; specifically, wrongly committed to a Eurocentric, technocratic, anthropocentric worldview; to capture people’s imaginations. Developing an ecological worldview, one that acknowledges our interdependence and interconnectedness with all species, is crucial.

Thus, as the 21st century progresses, Standing Rock will eventually be seen as having more influence than Occupy Wall Street. We are connected to our planet and the web of life more than we can ever know or attempt to explain. For instance, we won’t end warfare until we abolish factory farming: the two are intimately linked, as exploitation of man over animal allows fascists the ideological justification for exploitation and the killing of man by man. Ecology is the keystone science: it allows us to see the linkages between species, food webs, and provides the science needed to develop scale-appropriate, sustainable technology. Ecologists understand that an injury to one is an injury to all, and under capitalism, we’ve all been wounded, plant, animal, and human alike, even the rich, who’ve suffered spiritual decay and moral disintegration.

The only democracy possible is an ecological democracy, with a long-term planning, and rational, sustainably-oriented national constitutions, a 90-95% reduction in fossil fuel use within a few decades at most, and an international consensus which will guarantee safeguards against habitat destruction, even in the face of democratic majority opposition. If we don’t face up to these facts, and collectively and courageously organize, we may, in fact, be due for the Kali Yuga, as the Hindus prophesied.

Thus, perhaps we can update and re-phrase Horkheimer’s famous quote for the 21st century:

“Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about the 6th mass extinction.”

By William Hawes/DissidentVoice

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Trump Wants to Slash All Research Funds—Except for Military

President Donald Trump’s budget would slash nearly one in four dollars spent on science research at federal agencies, affecting study of everything from faster airport screening to protecting people from earthquakes and storms, and investigating new drinking water contaminants.

Trump’s proposal targets every federal department for cuts – except the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs, where research funding would increase substantially.

Overall, Trump’s budget would eliminate more than $30.6 billion, or nearly 21 percent, of research and development funding in fiscal year 2018 compared with 2016, when the Obama administration budgeted $148.3 billion. Adjusted for inflation, those cuts would reach almost 24 percent.

The biggest loser would be the Environmental Protection Agency, which would surrender 46.3 percent, or $239 million, of its research and development funds. Five others also face double-digit blows: the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Interior, Energy and the National Science Foundation.

Details of the potential impacts on the federal government’s scientific and engineering research are outlined in a new Congressional Research Service report that analyzed 12 major federal departments and agencies, and compared them with fiscal year 2016, the latest year available for a governmentwide comparison.

Robert Cowin of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research and advocacy group, said the report reveals a clear pattern of White House hostility to the government’s role in science on topics as critical as water supplies, space, oceans, renewable energy, diseases, weather and earthquakes.

“That’s troubling, given all the benefits that we’ve enjoyed from that (research),” Cowin said.

For instance, the budget would trim a third of the funding for Department of Homeland Security research into making airport security screening faster and less intrusive for passengers while also being better at spotting terrorists.

The biggest winner in Trump’s research budget, the Defense Department, would account for almost half of all federal research and development spending, according to the report. The $84.4 billion proposal represents an increase of more than 18 percent in the Pentagon’s research, which ranges from medical topics to destroying chemical weapons and disarming roadside bombs in combat zones.

The only other federal agency that would receive a boost is the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to the Congressional Research Service. VA research, such as projects related to the treatment and rehabilitation of injured veterans, would increase by 11 percent, or $135 million. Trump’s budget tells the VA to prioritize suicide prevention, pain management and opioid addiction.

Single-digit cuts would be in store for the departments of Commerce (6.8 percent) and Homeland Security (3.1 percent), as well as NASA (3.1 percent). At NASA, money would be stripped from Earth science and climate change research, and the maintenance of an Earth-observing satellite already built and launched with taxpayer dollars.

At the EPA, nearly half of the funds would disappear for researching air pollution, water contaminants, chemical safety, climate change and other areas related to protecting the environment and human health. One target: “Strengthening the science for drinking water and water-quality standards and guidance for new and emerging contaminants that threaten human health and aquatic ecosystems.”

The Energy Department’s investigations into efficiency and renewable energy would take major hits under Trump’s plan to cut its research budget by almost 12 percent.

Research into the health of the oceans, including fisheries and marine mammals, as well as science related to climate change and weather, would be cut at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Facing a 25 percent cut in research funding, the Agriculture Department would see several labs closed, research programs slashed or eliminated, and no funding for several grants to colleges, including its Women and Minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program. The Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey would have about 30 percent less money to research earthquakes and land use changes, according to the report.

The report focused on just one Department of Health and Human Services program, the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest biomedical research funder, which would see a 21.5 percent decrease from 2017 under Trump’s budget, according to a report by the nongovernmental American Association for the Advancement of Science or AAAS.

So far, the House has rejected that, moving to increase NIH research money by 3.2 percent, according to the AAAS, signaling just one likely flashpoint in the fight ahead.

HHS Secretary Tom Price, whose department would lose 19 percent or $6.1 billion – the most research and development dollars of any in the government – said in May that Trump’s budget “outlines a clear path toward fiscal responsibility by creating efficiencies that both improve services and save money.” Even before action on the 2018 budget, Price has already eliminated the department’s funding for teen pregnancy prevention research.

Trump didn’t mention research and development or science in his budget message in May, but he said “we must scrutinize every dollar the federal government spends.”

“Just as families decide how to manage limited budgets, we must ensure the federal government spends precious taxpayer dollars only on our highest national priorities, and always in the most efficient, effective manner,” the president said.

For years, a cost-cutting Congress has been backing away from what had been a strong public commitment to innovation in energy, technology, health and the environment. Public investment in non-defense research and development has been essentially flat since 2004, except for a one-off boost from the 2009 stimulus act.

But the cuts in the Trump budget go far deeper than the belt-tightening Republicans in Congress have advocated.

In response, Congress is starting to push back, with House bills that contain more money than the president requested for specific programs, and Senate bills offering more than the House. At the EPA, for example, a House bill would reduce research by 14.4 percent rather than Trump’s 46.3 percent.

With the House and Senate recessed for August, Congress hasn’t agreed on a final budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1.

The AAAS says the congressional proposals risk violating statutory spending caps. The Budget Control Act of 2011, which President Barack Obama signed into law to resolve a federal debt standoff with Congress, requires annual cuts in discretionary spending through 2021. If cuts aren’t deep enough, that could trigger automatic, across-the-board cuts to all agencies.

To avoid that, Congress would have to reach a temporary deal to waive the caps, as it has done before.

“The bottom line is that much of what Congress has produced is not workable under current law,” Matt Hourihan, the AAAS research and development budget analysis director, wrote in another report on Aug. 1.

Energy research shows how Congress, while seeming generous compared with Trump, still would cut federal support in key areas. For example, Trump wants to reduce research funding for efficiency and renewables by nearly 70 percent from fiscal year 2017 levels, to $636 million, according to the AAAS. Some initiatives would be eliminated. In the House, that research funding would drop by 48 percent, to $1.086 billion. Even the Senate’s much larger figure, $1.937 billion, would be a 7.3 percent cut.

One of the smallest yet effective health research programs eliminated in Trump’s budget: the Fogarty International Center, which for 50 years has funded international health research. All $70 million for the center would disappear. The House, however, wants to keep the center alive, adding $3 million.

Without Fogarty’s support, some ongoing investigations in Peru, Brazil and Mexico into Zika, Chagas and dengue – diseases that are posing increased danger in the United States – would halt. Researchers say Fogarty, a unit of the National Institutes of Health, also has been vital in the fights against HIV and Ebola.

In an interview on the center’s website, Kenyan Dr. Ruth Nduati of the University of Nairobi, a former Fogarty trainee, said many people are alive today because of the U.S. funds.

“Fogarty has changed the face of HIV medicine,” she said.

By Randy Lee Loftis / Reveal

Toyota, Mazda Announce Plans for a $1.6 Billion U.S. Plant

President Trump called it a “great investment in American manufacturing.”

Toyota and Mazda announced Friday they are jointly building a $1.6 billion assembly plant in the U.S., buying a stake in each other, and developing electric vehicles.

Under the agreement, Toyota, the world’s second-largest automaker, will buy a 5 percent stake in Mazda, Japan’s sixth-largest carmaker. The smaller automaker, meanwhile, will take a 0.25 percent share in Toyota. The U.S. plant would have the capacity to make 300,000 vehicles annually and create up to 4,000 jobs , the companies said. The plant, whose location is yet to be determined, will begin work in 2021 pending regulatory approval, the companies said. Mazda will make new crossovers for the North American market at the plant. Toyota said it plans to produce Corollas for the North American market there. The goal, the companies said, was to respond more quickly to the needs of its customers.

President Trump praised the announcement on Twitter, calling it a “great investment in American manufacturing.” The decision by the automakers could be seen a victory for Trump who had campaigned for president vowing to bring back U.S. manufacturing jobs—though many of these jobs were returning in smaller numbers for a few years.

Still, the announcement comes at a surprising time for the U.S. auto industry: Figures released this week showed a continuing decline in car sales, a trend driven last month mostly by weaker-than-expected sales of trucks. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—the big-three U.S. automakers—were particularly affected, each seeing larger-than-expected sales declines. Sales of Mazda fell, too. Toyota was one of the few companies that saw an increase in sales.

Lower demand from consumers, as well as increased emissions and regulatory standards, the rise of self-driving technology, and ride-sharing services makes the auto industry a challenging sector. The two companies acknowledged as much in their announcement.

“With the future of the industry in mind, in addition to leveraging their individual strengths to further improve technologies and reinforce their business foundations, Toyota and Mazda aim to deepen collaboration and achieve sustainable growth through their partnership, rising to face and overcome these pressing challenges,” the statement said.

By KRISHNADEV CALAMUR

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Why Technology Will Not Solve Our Criminal Justice Problems

Technological and scientific interventions in criminal justice are not always newsworthy enough to draw our attention away from urgent and sensational issues on Capitol Hill. But when a jail in Tennessee promotes sterilization by offering reduced sentences to men who volunteer to have vasectomies, we have to pay attention. The problem is not that one jail implemented a terrible eugenicist policy; it is that stakeholders in the criminal justice system are consistently looking for scientific and technological solutions to social problems, forgetting that—as fivethirtyeight contributor Laura Hudson writes— “technology is biased too.”

In the context of criminal justice, America’s faith in technological interventions is worse than misplaced; it is dangerous.

Consider the innovations of recent years: dashboard and body-worn cameras, next-generation electronic monitors, secret algorithms that help to inform sentencing—these items form an impressive and James Bond-esque inventory. The companies that peddle these products invite law enforcement and the American public to imagine that these devices (or medical procedures like the vasectomy) will solve the problems that plague our criminal justice system. As a writer for the free-market think tank, R-Street Research, claimed earlier this year: “finding solutions to our incarceration problem may require the innovation and cost-effectiveness that only technology can provide.”

Even careful researchers see this technological solutionism as a new and auspicious (if imperfect) trend. For example, Michael D. White’s rigorous study of the benefits and limitations of body-worn cameras begins by noting that: “In recent years, technological innovation has continually shaped law enforcement, from less-lethal devices (e.g., TASER) and forensic evidence to advanced crime analysis.” Americans with differing political ideologies often agree that technological developments will solve social problems—especially in the highly-rationalized areas of policing and punishment.

We have seen this type of thinking before, and a brief history of the electric chair illustrates exactly why it is harmful. In the early-nineteenth century, a consolidated movement to abolish the death penalty implored Americans to question whether a just and modern nation should kill its citizens. Whether is the operative word here. The public debate was couched in terms of ethics, and states decided to update or retain their laws accordingly.

In 1887, Elbridge Gerry and a cadre of New York elite changed this public conversation. This commission published a report—now known as “The Gerry Report”—that surveyed thirty-four methods of execution in the search of the “Most Humane and Practical Method of Carrying into Effect the Sentence of Death in Capital Cases.” These findings inspired New York State’s Electric Execution Act of 1888. But even before it was applied to state policy, “The Gerry Report” had left an indelible impression by positing that a comparatively “humane and practical method” of execution existed.

The Gerry commission, along with other proponents of the death penalty, convinced the American public to stop asking whether states should kill and to start asking how states could kill efficiently and humanely. As I argue in my book, Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882-1952, this transition from whether to how changed the way Americans perceived the issue of capital punishment, especially in the case of bungled executions. Where a prolonged and painful hanging once encouraged spectators to wonder if the law was unjust, botched electric executions indicated, instead, that the electric chair needed modification.

The history of the electric chair reminds us that new technologies—in corrections, as in all things—are always more than tools. We don’t just use technologies, we also think with them. The danger of the electric chair was not only that it was an imperfect technology, but also that it bolstered the fantasy of perfectibility. Today, when we invest in scientific technological solutions, we buy into a similar dream. Although, as NPR reports, it is important to mitigate machine bias, these measures will not solve our underlying social issues.

Our faith in technology consumes resources and begets complacency. We predict that body cameras will overcome the widespread distrust of law enforcement, although cameras are no substitute for repairing relationships between police officers and the community members they strive to protect. We expect that electronic monitors will reduce recidivism, despite evidence that increased surveillance does not reduce crime. We hope that algorithms might make sentencing objective, but we forget that algorithms are descriptive and recapitulate the racial biases that they claim to redress. Apparently, some even hope that eugenics will solve the school-to-prison pipeline.

As sociologist David Garland argues in his award-winning study, Punishment and Modern Society, “Our taken-for-granted ways of punishing have relieved us of the need for thinking deeply about punishment and what little thinking we are left to do is guided along certain narrowly formulated channels.” When we anticipate a technological fix, we forget that the status quo is not our only option. We must challenge our assumptions about technological and scientific solutions. We could accomplish more by channeling resources into diversionary programs to reduce recidivism. We could invest in prison education or in public education that could address the school-to-prison pipeline at its source. We could confront underlying issues like racism, poverty, and addiction with a robust social safety net. But before we undertake any of these ventures, we have to give up the hope that science or technology will save us from ourselves.

by JENNIFER L. LIEBERMAN/CounterPunch

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Justice Dept. to Take On Affirmative Action in College Admissions

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants, according to a document obtained by The New York Times.

The document, an internal announcement to the civil rights division, seeks current lawyers interested in working for a new project on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”

The announcement suggests that the project will be run out of the division’s front office, where the Trump administration’s political appointees work, rather than its Educational Opportunities Section, which is run by career civil servants and normally handles work involving schools and universities.

The document does not explicitly identify whom the Justice Department considers at risk of discrimination because of affirmative action admissions policies. But the phrasing it uses, “intentional race-based discrimination,” cuts to the heart of programs designed to bring more minority students to university campuses.

Supporters and critics of the project said it was clearly targeting admissions programs that can give members of generally disadvantaged groups, like black and Latino students, an edge over other applicants with comparable or higher test scores.

The project is another sign that the civil rights division is taking on a conservative tilt under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It follows other changes in Justice Department policy on voting rights, gay rights and police reforms.

Roger Clegg, a former top official in the civil rights division during the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration who is now the president of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, called the project a “welcome” and “long overdue” development as the United States becomes increasingly multiracial.

“The civil rights laws were deliberately written to protect everyone from discrimination, and it is frequently the case that not only are whites discriminated against now, but frequently Asian-Americans are as well,” he said.

But Kristen Clarke, the president of the liberal Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, criticized the affirmative action project as “misaligned with the division’s longstanding priorities.” She noted that the civil rights division was “created and launched to deal with the unique problem of discrimination faced by our nation’s most oppressed minority groups,” performing work that often no one else has the resources or expertise to do.

“This is deeply disturbing,” she said. “It would be a dog whistle that could invite a lot of chaos and unnecessarily create hysteria among colleges and universities who may fear that the government may come down on them for their efforts to maintain diversity on their campuses.”

The Justice Department declined to provide more details about its plans or to make the acting head of the civil rights division, John Gore, available for an interview.

“The Department of Justice does not discuss personnel matters, so we’ll decline comment,” said Devin O’Malley, a department spokesman.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the educational benefits that flow from having a diverse student body can justify using race as one factor among many in a “holistic” evaluation, while rejecting blunt racial quotas or race-based point systems. But what that permits in actual practice by universities — public ones as well as private ones that receive federal funding — is often murky.

Mr. Clegg said he would expect the project to focus on investigating complaints the civil rights division received about any university admissions programs.

He also suggested that the project would look for stark gaps in test scores and dropout rates among different racial cohorts within student bodies, which he said would be evidence suggesting that admissions offices were putting too great an emphasis on applicants’ race and crossing the line the Supreme Court has drawn.

Some of that data, he added, could be available through the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Photo

John Gore, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, in 2014.CreditAmerican Constitution Society, via YouTube

The Supreme Court most recently addressed affirmative action admissions policies in a 2016 case, voting 4 to 3 to uphold a race-conscious program at the University of Texas at Austin. But there are several pending lawsuits challenging such practices at other high-profile institutions, including Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The Justice Department has not taken a position in those cases.

The pending start of the affirmative action project — division lawyers who want to work on it must submit their résumés by Aug. 9, the announcement said — joins a series of changes involving civil rights law since Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

In a lawsuit challenging Texas’ strict voter identification law, the Justice Department switched its position, dropping the claim that the law was intentionally discriminatory and later declaring that the law had been fixed. Mr. Sessions has also made clear he is not interested in using consent decrees to impose reforms on troubled police departments and has initiated a sweeping review of existing agreements.

Last week, the Justice Department, without being asked, filed a brief in a private employment discrimination lawsuit. It urged an appeals court not to interpret the ban on sex-based discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as covering sexual orientation. The Obama administration had shied from taking a stand on that question.

Vanita Gupta, who ran the civil rights division in the Obama administration’s second term and is now president of the liberal Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, noted that the briefs in the Texas voter identification and gay-rights cases were signed only by Trump administration political appointees, not career officials, just as the affirmative action project will apparently be run directly by the division’s front office.

“The fact that the position is in the political front office, and not in the career section that enforces antidiscrimination laws for education, suggests that this person will be carrying out an agenda aimed at undermining diversity in higher education without needing to say it,” Ms. Gupta said.

The civil rights division has been a recurring culture-war battleground as it passed between Democratic and Republican administrations.

During the administration of George W. Bush, its overseers violated Civil Service hiring laws, an inspector general found, by filling its career ranks with conservatives who often had scant experience in civil rights law. At the same time, it brought fewer cases alleging systematic discrimination against minorities and more alleging reverse discrimination against whites, like a 2006 lawsuit forcing Southern Illinois University to stop reserving certain fellowship programs for women or members of underrepresented racial groups.

In 2009, the Obama administration vowed to revitalize the agency and hired career officials who brought in many new lawyers with experience working for traditional, liberal-leaning civil-rights organizations.

By Charlie Savage/NYTimes

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Is this Trump’s worst-ever Twitter move? Threatening Congress could become an epic disaster

In a new tweet-burst, Trump threatens to cut off health care for Congress and staffers. Let’s see how that works!

President Donald Trump declared war on Congress this past weekend: both parties and both chambers, and including modestly paid Capitol Hill staffers. Not only that, he threatened to unilaterally rescind subsidies to help low-income Americans pay their health insurance premiums, potentially stripping millions of Americans of their coverage. In a Saturday tweetgasm, the Mad King blurted from his porcelain throne:

Trump tweet

If a new HealthCare Bill is not approved quickly, BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies and BAILOUTS for Members of Congress will end very soon!

The “bailout for Insurance Companies” is Trump’s obnoxious shorthand for what Reuters described as “$8 billion in cost-sharing reduction subsidies paid by the federal government to insurers to lower the price of health coverage for low-income individuals.” In other words, if you and your family earn less than 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), the government helps you pay your premiums. Given that health insurance coverage is now mandated by the government and given that uninsured Americans tend to drive up health care costs, premium subsidies are both fair and fiscally responsible.

The “bailout for Congress” is more complicated, but the fact that Trump threatened to kill it with fire ought to both infuriate and ostracize members from both sides of the aisle (more about this presently). Trump is engaging in clear extortion in order to further pursue his maniacal obsession with repealing the ACA, despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s declaration that it’s “time to move on.”

Let’s review. Several years ago, former House Speaker John Boehner and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid led a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers to the White House in order to convince President Obama to continue providing a salary benefit for members of Congress and their staffers. Obama acquiesced to their request for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to continue its decades-long practice of providing health insurance premium-sharing as a benefit for any members who choose to have employer-based insurance coverage.

Until 2013, members were covered under the same government employee health plan as all other federal workers: the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program. Briefly put, it’s the public-sector equivalent to the employer-based health coverage most Americans receive through their private sector full-time jobs. As of 2013, though, a seldom-discussed amendment to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), proposed by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, went into effect, requiring that all members of Congress and staffers who wanted to continue their employer-based health coverage purchase their plans through the District of Columbia’s marketplace, established through the ACA. However, the Grassley amendment didn’t include any provisions for continuing FEHB’s premium-sharing, under which the government pays 72 percent of the health premiums for members and staff. Again, that isn’t out of the norm given that most full-time workers in America receive a similar benefit through their jobs.

This brings us back to Boehner, Reid, Obama and the OPM. Per the request of Congress, Obama ordered OPM to write a new rule allowing members and staff to continue receiving the premium-sharing salary benefit, ported to the D.C. exchange. Without the rule, Hill employees and their bosses would face a massive pay cut. Obama’s rule solved that problem, but no good deed goes unpunished: Republicans almost immediately began framing the benefit as an “exemption from Obamacare,” making it appear as if Congress was exempt from the entire law.

This, of course, was a whopper lie given that Congress was mandated by law to buy insurance through the Obamacare exchange if its members and their employees wanted employer coverage. Members and staffers can buy insurance through whatever means they choose, but premium-sharing is only provided if employer coverage is chosen. According to a 2013 tally by the Washington Post, libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a longtime advocate of Obamacare repeal, purchased his insurance through the D.C. exchange while receiving the premium-sharing benefit.

Trump, whose White House staffers are likely covered through FEHB, complete with premium-sharing benefits paid by taxpayers, is directly and explicitly blackmailing Congress. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted in response: “This is a clear threat to Congress: pass my health bill or as punishment I will end health care for you, your staff, & your constituents.” It’s difficult to fully illustrate how dumb and terrible this is — not like that’s something brand new. The “terrible” part is self explanatory: Trump is using the lives and livelihoods of millions of American citizens, including members of Congress, as a cudgel to get what he wants. And we shouldn’t be particularly shocked when he follows through.

Trump continues to make confoundingly stupid decisions: The executive branch has become a kakistocracy — government run by its most unqualified and corrupt occupants. See also “Idiocracy.” By threatening Congress from a position of utter weakness (38 percent approval rating, via Gallup), the president is not only crippling his own legislative agenda, he’s making enemies out of allies. At some point, and hopefully it’s soon, his entire presidency could come down to a congressional vote. In the near term, he needs all the friends he can muster without anything to offer in return.

Worse yet, former intelligence officer and MSNBC analyst Malcolm Nance reported on the syndicated Stephanie Miller Show last week that most of the leaks that so enrage the president are coming from Capitol Hill, not the intelligence community. Either way, Trump’s berserker lack of discipline, his uncensored blurts and “Fox & Friends”-inspired tantrums will only serve to accelerate the flow of damaging anti-Trump leaks, while augmenting the ranks of his enemies at the southeastern end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Trump thinks that Congress, and indeed, the entire federal government, works for him. In the real world, every new day and every fresh bout of explosive social-media diarrhea further isolates him. He thinks his chaotic flailing makes him more popular, but the exact opposite is true. He still hasn’t learned that he’s not the boss of the nation, no matter how loudly he stomps and screams. If this latest episode ends up being the tipping point, he only has himself to blame.

By Bob Cesca/Salon

Posted by The NON-Conformist

The Trillion-Dollar ‘National Security’ Budget

You wouldn’t know it, based on the endless cries for more money coming from the military, politicians, and the president, but these are the best of times for the Pentagon.  Spending on the Department of Defense alone is already well in excess of half a trillion dollars a year and counting.  Adjusted for inflation, that means it’s higher than at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s massive buildup of the 1980s and is now nearing the post-World War II funding peak.  And yet that’s barely half the story.  There are hundreds of billions of dollars in “defense” spending that aren’t even counted in the Pentagon budget.

Under the circumstances, laying all this out in grisly detail—and believe me, when you dive into the figures, they couldn’t be grislier—is the only way to offer a better sense of the true costs of our wars past, present, and future, and of the funding that is the lifeblood of the national security state.  When you do that, you end up with no less than 10 categories of national security spending (only one of which is the Pentagon budget).  So steel yourself for a tour of our nation’s trillion-dollar-plus “national security” budget. Given the Pentagon’s penchant for wasting money and our government’s record of engaging in dangerously misguided wars without end, it’s clear that a large portion of this massive investment of taxpayer dollars isn’t making anyone any safer.

1) The Pentagon Budget: The Pentagon’s “base” or regular budget contains the costs of the peacetime training, arming, and operation of the U.S. military and of the massive civilian workforce that supports it—and if waste is your Eden, then you’re in paradise.

The department’s budget is awash in waste, as you might expect from the only major federal agency that has never passed an audit.  For example, last year a report by the Defense Business Board, a Pentagon advisory panel, found that the Department of Defense could save $125 billion over five years just by trimming excess bureaucracy.  And a new study by the Pentagon’s Inspector General indicates that the department has ignored hundreds of recommendations that could have saved it more than $33.6 billion.

The Pentagon can’t even get an accurate count of the number of private contractors it employs, but the figure is certainly in the range of 600,000 or higher, and many of them carry out tasks that might far better be handled by government employees.  Cutting that enormous contractor work force by just 15%, only a start when it comes to eliminating the unnecessary duplication involved in hiring government employees and private contractors to do the same work, would save an easy $20 billion annually.

And the items mentioned so far are only the most obvious examples of misguided expenditures at the Department of Defense.  Even larger savings could be realized by scaling back the Pentagon’s global ambitions, which have caused nothing but trouble in the last decade and a half as the U.S. military has waged devastating and counterproductive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa.  An analysis by Ben Friedman of the conservative Cato Institute estimates that the Pentagon could reduce its projected spending by one trillion dollars over the next decade if Washington reined in its interventionary instincts and focused only on America’s core interests.

Donald Trump, of course, ran for president as a businessman who would clean house and institute unprecedented efficiencies in government.  Instead, on entering the Oval Office, he’s done a superb job of ignoring chronic problems at the Pentagon, proposing instead to give that department a hefty raise: $575 billion next year.  And yet his expansive military funding plans look relatively mild compared to the desires of the gung-ho members of the armed services committees in the House and Senate.  Democrats and Republicans alike want to hike the Pentagon budget to at least $600 billion or more.  The legislative fight over a final number will play out over the rest of this year.  For now, let’s just use Trump’s number as a placeholder.

Pentagon Budget: $575 billion

2) The War Budget: The wars of this century, from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond, have largely been paid for through a special account that lies outside the regular Pentagon budget.  This war budget—known in the antiseptic language of the Pentagon as the “Overseas Contingency Operations” account, or OCO—peaked at more than $180 billion at the height of the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq.

As troop numbers in that country and Afghanistan have plumetted from hundreds of thousands to about 15,000, the war budget, miraculously enough, hasn’t fallen at anywhere near the same pace.  That’s because it’s not even subject to the modest caps on the Pentagon’s regular budget imposed by Congress back in 2011, as part of a deal to keep the government open.

In reality, over the past five years, the war budget has become a slush fund that pays for tens of billions of dollars in Pentagon expenses that have nothing to do with fighting wars.  The Trump administration wants $64.6 billion for that boondoggle budget in fiscal year 2018.  Some in Congress would like to hike it another $10 billion.  For consistency, we’ll again use the Trump number as a baseline.

War Budget: $64.6 Billion

Running Total: $639.6 Billion

3) Nuclear Warheads (and more): You might think that the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal—nuclear warheads—would be paid for out of the Pentagon budget.   And you would, of course, be wrong.  The cost of researching, developing, maintaining, and “modernizing” the American arsenal of 6,800 nuclear warheads falls to an obscure agency located inside the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA. It also works on naval nuclear reactors, pays for the environmental cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities, and funds the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories, at a total annual cost of more than $20 billion per year.

Department of Energy (nuclear): $20 Billion

Running total: $659.6 billion

4) “Other Defense”: This catchall category encompasses a number of flows of defense-related funding that go to agencies other than the Pentagon.  It totals about $8 billion per year. In recent years, about two-thirds of this money has gone to pay for the homeland security activities of the FBI, accounting for more than half of that agency’s annual budget.

“Other Defense”: $8 Billion

Running Total: $677.6 billion

The four categories above make up what the White House budget office considers total spending on “national defense.”  But I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that their cumulative $677.6 billion represents far from the full story.  So let’s keep right on going.

5) Homeland Security: After the 9/11 attacks, Congress created a mega-agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  It absorbed 22 then-existing entities, all involved in internal security and border protection, creating the sprawling cabinet department that now has 240,000 employees.  For those of you keeping score at home, the agencies and other entities currently under the umbrella of DHS include the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, the Transportation Security Agency, the U.S. Secret Service, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), and the Office of Intelligence Analysis (the only one of America’s 17 intelligence agencies to fit under the department’s rubric).

How many of these agencies actually make us safer?  That would be a debatable topic, if anyone were actually interested in such a debate.  ICE—America’s deportation force—has, for instance, done far more to cause suffering than to protect us from criminals or terrorists.  On the other hand, it’s reassuring to know that there is an office charged with determining whether there is a nuclear weapon or radioactive “dirty bomb” in our midst.

While it’s hard to outdo the Pentagon, DHS has its own record of dubious expenditures on items large and small.  They range from $1,000 fees for employees to attend conferences at spas to the purchase of bagpipes for border protection personnel to the payment of scores of remarkably fat salaries to agency bureaucrats.  On the occasion of its 10th anniversary in 2013, Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC) excoriated the department as “rife with waste,” among other things, pointing to a report by the DHS inspector general that it had misspent over $1 billion.

DHS was supposed to provide a better focus for efforts to protect the United States from internal threats.  Its biggest problem, though, may be that it has become a magnet for increased funding for haphazard, misplaced, and often simply dangerous initiatives.  These would, for instance, include its program to supply grants to local law enforcement agencies to help them buy military-grade equipment to be deployed not against terrorists, but against citizens protesting the injustices perpetrated by the very same agencies being armed by DHS.

The Trump administration has proposed spending $50 billion on DHS in FY 2018.

Homeland Security: $50 Billion

Running Total: $717.6 Billion

6) Military Aid: U.S. government-run military aid programs have proliferated rapidly in this century.  The United States now has scores of arms and training programs serving more than 140 countries.  They cost more than $18 billion per year, with about 40% of that total located in the State Department’s budget.  While the Pentagon’s share has already been accounted for, the $7 billion at State—which can ill afford to pay for such programs with the Trump administration seeking to gut the rest of its budget—has not.

Military Aid at the State Department: $7 Billion

Running Total: $724.6 Billion

7) Intelligence: The United States government has 16 separate intelligence agencies: the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); the National Security Agency (NSA); the Defense Intelligence Agency; the FBI; the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research; the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence Analysis; the Drug Enforcement Administration Office of National Security Intelligence; the Treasury Department Office of Intelligence and Analysis; the Department of Energy Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; the National Reconnaissance Office; the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; Army Military Intelligence; the Office of Naval Intelligence; Marine Corps Intelligence; and Coast Guard Intelligence. Add to these the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which is supposed to coordinate this far-flung intelligence network, and you have a grand total of 17 agencies.

The U.S. will spend more than $70 billion on intelligence this year, spread across all these agencies.  The bulk of this funding is contained in the Pentagon budget—including the budgets of the CIA and the NSA (believed to be hidden under obscure line items there).  At most, a few billion dollars in additional expenditures on intelligence fall outside the Pentagon budget and since, given the secrecy involved, that figure can’t be determined, let’s not add anything further to our running tally.

Intelligence: $70 Billion (mostly contained inside the Pentagon budget)

Running Total: $724.6 Billion

8) Supporting Veterans: A steady uptick of veterans generated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has dramatically increased the costs of supporting such vets once they come home, including the war wounded, some of whom will need medical care for life.  For 2018, the Veterans Administration has requested over $186 billion for its budget, more than three times what it was before the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan.

Veterans: $186 billion

Running Total: $910.6 Billion

9) Military Retirement: The trust fund set up to cover pensions for military retirees and their survivors doesn’t have enough money to pay out all the benefits promised to these individuals.  As a result, it is supplemented annually by an appropriation from the general revenues of the government.  That supplement has by now reached roughly $80 billion per year.

Military Retirement: $80 Billion

Running Total: $990.6 Billion 

10) Defense Share of Interest on the Debt: It’s no secret that the U.S. government regularly runs at a deficit and that the total national debt is growing. It may be more surprising to learn that the interest on that debt runs at roughly $500 billion per year.  The Project on Government Oversight calculates the share of the interest on that debt generated by defense-related programs at more than $100 billion annually.

Defense Share of the Interest on the Debt: $100 billion

Grand Total: $1.09 Trillion

That final annual tally of nearly $1.1 trillion to pay for past wars, fund current wars, and prepare for possible future conflicts is roughly double the already staggering $575 billion the Trump administration has proposed as the Pentagon’s regular budget for 2018.  Most taxpayers have no idea that more than a trillion dollars a year is going to what’s still called “defense,” but these days might equally be called national insecurity.

So the next time you hear the president, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or a hawkish lawmaker claim that the U.S. military is practically collapsing from a lack of funding, don’t believe it for a second.  Donald Trump may finally have put plutocracy in the Oval Office, but a militarized version of it has long been ensconced in the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state.  In government terms, make no mistake about it, the Pentagon & Co. are the 1%.

 

By William D. Hartung / TomDispatch

Posted by The NON-Conformist