Wednesday, February 29, 2012


From Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone comes confirmation of what we already took for granted: the Department of Homeland Security has kept a close watch on Occupy Wall Street. Hastings just got hold of a secret five-page DHS report culled from the five million newly-released WikiLeaks documents.

Three things are screaming out:

1). Homeland Security was created to guard against terrorism. Why is it even interested in a peaceful domestic protest movement?

2). Homeland Security is a Huffington Post copycat. It got all the info for its report from Internet news items, and simply republished them in aggregate form, links and all. I picture a 20-something, low-level DHS hack/wannabe blogger sitting in a cubicle, trolling the Web in a frenzy of copying and pasting. He/she/they even went to the Daily Kos to get a copy of a protest march route! Among other sources were Reuters, CNN, The Huffington Post(!), major metropolitan newspapers and TV outlets. There is no indication in the report that actual DHS personnel ever visited the camps.

3). This report was in the possession of Stratfor, the Austin, TX company that was the subject of a mass email hacking by the Anonymous hacktivist group. What is the relationship between DHS and a private intelligence firm whose clients are multinational corporations?  The Surveillance State is beholden to the Corporate State, it appears. Or they're in cahoots. Or they are really one big entity, each faction feeding off the other. Isn't there a word for that?

As Hastings notes, the DHS report is fairly innocuous on the surface, although slanted toward concerns about the safety of the target of the protests -- the financial services industry -- and the "potential for violence". There is no smoking gun, no direct evidence in writing of a conspiracy to destroy the movement. But it ever so subtly hints that law enforcement should be on guard against the mobs in the camps and in the streets. There is just the hint of a dog-whistle within its five pages. There is a whiff of an "us against them" mentality. The last paragraph reads:
The growing support for the OWS movement has expanded the protests’ impact and increased the potential for violence. While the peaceful nature of the protests has served so far to mitigate their impact, larger numbers and support from groups such as Anonymous substantially increase the risk for potential incidents and enhance the potential security risk to critical infrastructure (CI). The continued expansion of these protests also places an increasingly heavy burden on law enforcement and movement organizers to control protesters. As the primary target of the demonstrations, financial services stands the sector most impacted by the OWS protests. Due to the location of the protests in major metropolitan areas, heightened and continuous situational awareness for security personnel across all CI sectors is encouraged.
In retrospect, it should be noted that the DHS report was written in October, at the very beginning of the Occupy movement. It was not until the following month that coordinated police crackdowns on the camps got underway, reportedly in the wake of a conference call among the mayors and DHS. This must have come after the Terror State urged the mayors to become paranoid and "situationally aware."

 One more sordid chapter in the History of American Government Overreach. One more smidgen of proof that we are under the control of an oligarchy. One more small step toward complete oppression, one giant leap backward for civil rights. Happy Leap Day, everybody! 

NYPD Guards at Zuccotti Park (post-eviction)

Update: Hastings was on The Young Turks last night to talk about the leaked DHS report. Watch him here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

When Islamophobes Attack

It's the latest episode of Shoot the Messenger. The enterprising AP reporters who revealed to the world that the New York City Police Department has been illegally spying on Muslim Americans for years are now being castigated by both smarmy politicians and their own fellow journalists for making the power elites and their hired army look bad. There's a whole new descriptive meant to marginalize people who insist on taking their constitutional rights seriously -- "extreme civil libertarians."

Far from evoking government and media outrage, the revelations -- which include the new shocker that the White House itself has funneled "drug war" money to the NYPD spying apparatus -- have generally inspired reactions ranging from disbelief and denial, thence to a spirited defense of state abuse of power. and finally to the demonization of those who dare to tear away the fabric of government secrecy. Erstwhile "liberals" seem to be generally okay with paramilitary thugs grossly overstepping their Constitutional bounds and geographical jurisdiction to conduct surveillance on an entire group based entirely on its religious beliefs. The hate speech of Islamophobes is no longer all that shocking. Politicians who last year were merely non-committal about the building of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan are now daring to be blatant.

Chief among them is one of the most powerful Democratic leaders in the country: Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. He has mounted a vigorous defense of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his spy program. Chuck is being championed in the pages of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post as a defender of freedom. It is fine, Schumer says, to single out Muslims for a sweeping surveillance program, as long as you don't single them out on the basis of their religion. Yes. He really did say that. Here are his exact words:
“There is nothing wrong with the NYPD collecting and assessing publicly available information from New York, New Jersey, the other 48 states or around the world in the effort to prevent another terror attack like 9/11. In fact, it is widely understood that the NYPD’s actions have kept us safer. Looking at public information and following leads is perfectly acceptable as long as any one group, in its entirety, is not targeted based only on its religious or ethnic affiliation.”

Schumer's blanket statement that the NYPD spy program "has made us safer" is going unchallenged by the mainstream media. The New York Daily News has published an editorial lauding Schumer and blasting anybody daring to tar and feather the NYPD. The News takes great umbrage, not at state-sponsored civil rights violations, but at the Peabody-award winning Associated Press.
Finally (gushed the News editorial) after weeks of innuendo, half-truths and distortions that have depicted the NYPD as spying on the city’s Muslim communities, an elected official has spoken the truth....There’s no there there, said Sen. Chuck Schumer of reports that the department’s Intelligence Division invasively monitored New Yorkers based on their religious beliefs.....
Excavated endlessly by The Associated Press in a series built on the false premise that to gather preventive information is to violate rights, the division’s work has amounted, for the most part, to checking out facts that are in the public record....
Schumer perceptively divined that which should have been obvious to all of the city’s elected leaders: Checking out information in the public domain tramples on no one’s rights or privacy.
More important, the NYPD needs to have the facts on hand in order to know where to go and to whom to speak in the event that the CIA passes on a tip that a suspected terrorist from, say, Pakistan is somewhere in the city.
Referring to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Schumer said: “I don’t think he has a bigoted bone in his body.”
And here is what the rabidly anti-Muslim Post is saying about Chuck the Hero:

Sen. Chuck Schumer stood tall for the NYPD this week as it took a politically motivated pummeling for gathering intelligence in New Jersey on potential Islamist extremist threats.
That took guts.
Bravo, Chuck.
Yes, it takes a courageous politician to defend the police practice of spying on elementary school children across the river in Newark, NJ, and targeting innocent Americans who suspiciously munch on fried chicken in an ethnic restaurant. But Schumer by no means stands alone. NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who recently sold out to the Obama Administration in the fraudclosure scandal, sees no reason to investigate civil rights scandals either.  Attorney General Eric Holder is certainly not about to rock the boat. After all, when it became known that the CIA was illegally spying on American citizens in tandem with the NYPD, he sat on his hands. Homeland Security, the CIA, the NYPD, the Dept. of Justice, Goldman Sachs.... these are interchangeable terms. They are all part of the same team.

When the AP first started publishing its series of articles on the illegal police spy operation last fall, NJ Rep. Rush Holt asked Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate. Holder ignored the request.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have renewed calls for an investigation in light of possible White House involvement, however oblique, in the spy program. The Obama Administration says there is no oversight of how the money it provided to the police department is used, and is refusing to comment on the controversy.

Not since FDR authorized the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II has ethnic profiling of citizens been undertaken with such monumental overreach. What's next? A Diaspora? Concentration camps? The government compiled data on and spied on Japanese-Americans for years prior to their mass arrests. World War Two ended, but the global War on Terror will continue into the foreseeable future. Will some future president end up apologizing one day for this latest miscarriage of justice as Ronald Reagan did forty years after the second world war?

With Democrats like Chuck fomenting fear and hatred, cheerleading a new American Inquisition, who needs crazoid right wing Republicans? Our elected officials are falling all over themselves trying to establish their Torquemada bona fides.

Update: Watch a video with Glenn Greenwald on the ACLU site, here.

Conductor Chuck, Keeping Fear Alive

Monday, February 27, 2012

Going Postal on the Poor

Leave it to Congress to exceed even its own abysmal level of clueless incompetence. In general, our lawmakers have not raised too much of a stink about the mass closures beginning in May of post offices and mail distribution centers, and the loss of thousands of postal service jobs. That severely poor rural areas are being unfairly targeted in the cutting frenzy has raised nary an eyebrow. I can't seem to recall any bill pending in the Bubble Dome that would put an end to Congressional franking privileges (free postage for official mailing to constituents) in order to stem the hemorrhage of money from the cash-strapped USPS.

But that has changed.  It is suddenly occurring to the political class that, due to closures and cutbacks, the delivery of mail-in ballots may be delayed in this November's general election. They have therefore decided that postal budget cuts constitute a crisis of epic proportions.  People may be unable to vote them back into office because they can't get to a post office! Delivery of ballots to absentee voters may be slowed by days, even weeks!  The closing of the distribution centers will mean an end to next-day delivery of first class mail. So something must be done -- pronto!

Some politicians are calling for delaying the closures until after Election Day. Millions of voters cast their ballots by mail every year, and in Washington and Oregon, voting is done only through the mail. Voting by mail is always more popular during a presidential election year. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is worried that ballots from rural areas in his state won't get to and from their destinations in time: "Not knowing how long it will take to process those ballots could disproportionately affect rural voters, he said.“Closing these facilities carries many unintended consequences. It is not a risk worth taking.”

What Wyden didn't say is that those rural areas will end up suffering from a lot more than disenfranchisement once the small-town post offices are shuttered for good. One of the main excuses the government has for annihilating mail service as we know it is that the Internet has killed snail mail. Tell that to the rural poor, who are often deprived of decent broadband coverage in their remote habitats. Mitt Romney is not the only tone-deaf member of the ruling class elite. He and his plutocratic cadre just assume that everybody has a computer, a Cadillac and a career, money to burn and gas to burn to drive to the nearest unclosed post office, maybe 50 miles away.

According a recent report published by Reuters, nearly 80 percent of the 3,830 post offices under consideration for closure are in sparsely populated rural areas, where poverty rates are higher than the national average -- and where one third have no Internet service. And unbelievably, the USPS did not even take economic impact on communities into consideration in deciding which facilities to close. The decision was based purely on profitability or the lack thereof. From Reuters:
About 2.9 million people live in the rural communities where the post office that may close is either the only one or one of two post offices serving their zip code area. For many rural residents, that would translate into longer drives to mail packages, pay bills or buy stamps.
The Postal Service chose post offices for possible closure based primarily on revenue. Two-thirds of the 3,830 post offices slated for closure earned less than $27,500 in annual sales, postal data show. Nearly 90 percent of these post offices are located in rural areas, where shrinking populations and dwindling businesses mean the post offices simply cost more to operate than they earn.
As with so many of the other gratuitous cost-cutting measures in the current federal budget, the post office cuts seem designed specifically to punish poor people in the name of austerity. If you don't do your fair share in this mercenary society, you just are not going to get President Obama's fair shot. Your worth as an American citizen seems to be  based solely on your monetary productivity. And Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe seems to know exactly what he is doing, because he refused to honor a Freedom of Information request from Reuters about revenue from each individual post office on the chopping block. The targeting of the indigent is no accident. And the savings from these arbitrary closings are so miniscule as to be meaningless. Statistics show that Donahoe's proposed closings would save only $295 million a year, or four-tenths of one percent of the USPS's annual operating expenses.
"That's a drop in the bucket," said William Henderson, who served as Postmaster General from 1998 to 2001. Then he corrected himself: "That's not even a drop in the bucket. The bucket won't ripple."
Do read the whole Reuters article. It is a real eye-opener; an all-too-rare example of enterprise journalism in this era of media stenography. It just adds even more evidence to the charge that Donahoe is another political front man of the privatization of America. He is doing his fair share to give corporations a fair shot at shaking us all down in their endless quest of making a buck. To hell with people who don't have enough money to make a difference, or to make him and his boss care.

NYU Professor Steve Hudkins says that Donohue seems to be frantically rushing to get rid of post office jobs and buildings before advisory studies and public input are even collected and collated. (Hudkins runs his Save the Post Office website purely as a public service. He neither works for the postal service nor has he any relatives who are postal employees. He just likes his small-town post office!):
The Postal Service isn’t waiting to hear what the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) has to say about the Network Rationalization plan.  The PRC’s Advisory Opinion is due out in late summer, probably August or September, but the Postal Service plans to get started on the consolidations as early as May. 
It’s disconcerting that the Postal Service is in such a rush to begin closing the plants, especially considering that it has only itself to blame for when the Advisory Opinion will be ready.  The Postal Service could have submitted the Request for an Opinion four months earlier....
It’s not clear why the Postal Service is now in such a hurry and why it wants to close so many plants in such a short time.  It’s a sure formula for chaos in the mail system, and delays in delivering the mail will be inevitable, probably much worse than the change in service standards for First-Class mail that's already part of the plan.
Perhaps the Postal Service wants to increase pressure on Congress to pass legislation, perhaps management really believes its own hype about how dire the situation is, or perhaps they just want to amp up the sense of emergency to help further their agenda.
Whatever the reason, the Postal Service is basically thumbing its nose at the PRC and saying it doesn’t really care what the Advisory Opinion says.  Many of the plants will be closed before the Opinion even comes out.
Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio wants Donahue fired, and he also doesn't understand why the President is not more involved in defending the USPS against (mainly) Republican assault.  
"They think somehow the private sector will take over," DeFazio said. "Tell me who in the private sector is going to deliver a letter for 45 cents to a small rural community 40 miles from the nearest, or 100 miles from the nearest, sorting facility? That's not going to happen. These people will be deprived of any meaningful service."
DeFazio said generally that reduced mail service would be an "incredible blow" to the U.S. economy and would affect several companies and consumers who rely on the current level of service.
"I guess we'll become the first developed nation on earth without a postal service, just like we're the only developed industrial nation on earth without universal healthcare," DeFazio said. "We're the best."
Obama's proposed 2013 budget calls for ending Saturday mail service to save money, but he has been mum on the plant closings, layoffs and shuttering of post offices in poor rural areas. What a huge surprise. How many photo-ops and campaign events has he held in poor rural areas? If you can't afford the gas to drive to one of his populist harangues in a monied burb, you're out of luck.

Abandoned Post Office in South Georgia

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Obama iPhone Cover-up and Other Insensitive Tackiness

Are you an Obama supporter feeling just a wee bit uncomfy for continuing to own the symbol of Chinese wage slave labor? Well, you can rest easy, because his operatives have come up with the perfect solution: you can now cover up your iPhone of Shame with a trendy case. And it's made in the USA! It gets rid your guilt, and pumps up "An America Built to Last" faux-populism at the same time. And it costs a coincidental $40! What a perfect way to blow the extra amount they claim you'll be taking home in your paycheck now that Congress has passed the FICA Holiday extension bill. That is, if you have a job that pays at least $50,000. Of course, if you don't earn at least $50,000, you can't very well afford an iPhone either. As an indigent middle class refugee, you're not in their target group.

Cover Up the Abuse of Chinese Sweatshops
Now that horrible working conditions in Apple factories have been exposed for the whole world to see, people are actually starting to make noise about boycotting iPhones and iPads and other electronics. I saw one woman on TV last week talking about how she hopes Apple will improve the lives of the worker bees before the next edition of the iPhone comes out, or else she will feel great angst when she is forced to go out and buy the latest model. 

There are some pundits who actually believe that without Apple and its Foxconn subcontractor, the factory workers would be dead anyway. There is no shortage of eager applicants lining up at Apple factories in the company city of Zhenzhou, they say. And polling reveals that if you happen to own an iPhone, you are less concerned than non-owners about where these products are made. So go ahead, feel better about yourself, and support your corporate Democrat at the same time.

In keeping with the propaganda that everyone aspires to the American Dream of material riches, and that prosperity is just around the corner, the Obama campaign is also rolling out St. Patrick's Day shirts just in time for the March 17th holiday. O'Bama has a tiny trace of Irish blood, milked to the hilt during a 2009 visit to his ancestral home town, where he famously quaffed a Guinness. So who knows? Maybe the Luck of the Irish can magically transport you over the rainbow to the pot of gold. Just fork over $30 now, to help the champion of Wall Street the working man get re-elected!

Uh-oh. There is just a wee problem with this design. The symbol of the Irish is not the four leaf clover. It's the shamrock, which only has three leaves, to represent the Holy Trinity. Calling Cardinal Timothy Dolan of St. Patrick's Cathedral! (He is already mad at Obama over the contraceptive kerfuffle,) And Christopher Cahill of the Irish Historical Society tells the New York Times that the tee shirt represents a major gaffe and is downright abnormal. The Obama Campaign, while promising to investigate the error, instead wasted no time adding four leaf clover O'Bama pint glasses to its catalogue of kitsch. Sure, and they really care.

New York Times commenters of Irish descent are not amused at all. "The beer mug is a ethnic slur that wouldn't happen to any other group without a huge fuss," writes Emily Kelly of New York. "I'm Irish, Catholic and offended by President Obama. Let him know it's not ok! Stand up and be counted now and on election day."

And John O' of Westchester chimed in: "St. Patrick's Day is rapidly becoming an occasion to besmirch the Irish; last year Mayor Mike's comment regarding boisterous parade marchers and now the President using a weed as a symbol to reflect his Irish-ness. However, there is no greater insult than the use of St. Paddy's or St. Pat's to refer to the great day. If the President would champion a law making it a federal crime to use any reference other than St. Patrick's Day, perhaps he won't have to take back all the shirts and glasses."

Never mind. Here are a couple of better selections. The first manages to offend everybody, and the second inadvertently tells the truth:

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hilariously Tainted Politics

Winning at any cost has become so important to Team Obama that its SuperPac is openly wading into the GOP primaries, running attack ads on a candidate who might lose the nomination in his own home state to a religious fanatic. The Daily Kos, a well-known Obama veal pen website, has also launched "Operation Hilarity", which urges supporters of the president to vote for Santorum in states which hold open primaries.  This is ostensibly to make it easier for Barack to win the election: better that he run against Rick Santorum than Mitt Romney, with whom he has too much in common for comfort.

Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, originally had started a fundraiser to help sabotage the Republican primaries, but scotched the monetary angle when criticism came pouring in about its tainting of the political process. No matter: PrioritiesUSA is spending its own tainted cash for attack ads. The objective of the Democrats seems to be this: drag out the GOP nominating process as long as possible in order to weaken all the candidates and make Obama a shoo-in.

This is wrong on so many levels. It reeks of desperation. It reveals Democrats to be in thrall to a Cult of Personality. The only beneficiary of a drawn-out food fight among the Republicans  will be President Obama. It will not be the electorate.  The more we can be distracted by the phony culture wars, the birth control fight, vaginal probes, presidential theology... and the more we can manufacture outrage and portray the president as a victim of a smear campaign, the easier it will be for Obama to continue his own far-right policies. The more an unhinged Rick Santorum can fill the airwaves and the blogs, the less we will notice, or care, about the shadow wars, the abuses of the surveillance state, the war on whistleblowers, the war on drugs, the war on poor people, the stealth privatization of schools, that too many of us are permanently unemployed and underemployed, and that the American Dream is just so much hot air.

The presidential contest the Democrats prefer will be between a right wing corporatist and a racist lunatic -- not between two right wing corporatists.  We must not, cannot notice that the entire process is ruled by oligarchic special interests. The pretense of choice must be maintained, no matter what the cost. Here is how Moulitsas put it yesterday: 
Of course, I realize that this (voting for Santorum) makes some of you squeamish, and if you live in one of those states and don't want to participate, you don't have to! (We also stopped fundraising for it, focusing instead in message mobilizing.) But there's too much at stake to worry about idealistic notions of what democracy should be. Luckily for all of us, Team Obama isn't restraining itself based on such idealism. They're playing to win, and this latest action is essentially strategic vindication for Operation Hilarity.
The action he refers to are the Obama SuperPac ads running in Michigan against Romney, who is not even the nominee yet. This tactic of an incumbent president involving himself in another party's nominating process had been unheard of until now. Citizens United is proving to be a real radical trend-setter, isn't it?

David Sirota of Salon has written a fine piece on the dangers of focusing on the manufactured culture wars during a drawn-out Republican primary. He disagrees with the conventional wisdom of the Democratic veal pen that the longer the Republicans can duke it out, the more they will expose their awfulness to the public at large. In fact, the opposite will occur: 
Straightforward as this hypothesis is, I don’t buy it — I believe the longer the Republican primary battle continues, the more the GOP’s most extreme proposals are given a mainstream platform,  the more their ideas are granted public credibility and the more conservative propaganda is invisibly woven into our most basic political assumptions. In other words, I believe in the Goldwater Principle, which suggests that while the eventual nominee may fail to win the cycle’s general election, the elongated nomination contest —  with its news cycle dominance and hardcore ideological edge — will help permanently shift the supposed mainstream “center” of our public debate to the fringe right.
We are already too far to the right as a nation for our own comfort and our own good. It has become the acceptable new normal to have a Democrat in the Oval Office who is openly anti-union (he pulled  OFA, his official campaign arm, out of  the Wisconsin labor protests a year ago), fiscally conservative (Catfood Commission), anti-environment (he nixed his own EPA's ozone rules), pro-corporation and Wall Street, job-destroying free trade proponent, and ad infinitum. His base is left slobbering in gratitude over the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (which has yet to increase women's pay), his same-sex marriage slow evolution and other liberal tidbits.

The corporate media have fallen down on their own job, abysmally. The so-called progressive cable TV shows no longer delve into substantive issues. Even renegade Keith Olbermann has stopped questioning or criticizing the Obama Administration.  It's all about ginning up outrage at the latest antics of the GOP candidates. Citizens United has extended the process by bankrolling fringe candidates, and the TV stations are raking in the advertising bucks.  They have discovered that lunacy is a commodity and an eminently lucrative one.

You don't hear much criticism of the White House during this election season from the more popular liberal blogs, either. In fact, the fomenting of fear is on a definite upswing. Just glancing over at the headlines in this site's blogroll and elsewhere this morning tells the story: "Romney: 'Nuclear Weapons Will Be Used if Obama Elected!""; "Our Nation of Moaners"; "Forced Births in the Bad Old Days"; "Santorum Excommunicates 4500 Christians!"; "Virginia To Impose State-Sponsored Rape by Forcing Women to Get Vaginal Probes!" is having hysterics. Can you contribute $15 right away to stop the Republican "Let Women Die!" bill? $top letting the Republicans make the war on women's health a wedge issue by helping us ensure that it will continue to be a wedge issue!

The only thing we have to fear is corporate Democrats telling us how much we should fear Republicans. This stuff reminds me of the alien abduction craze of years ago. UFOs were kidnapping people right and left, and there were always probes involved. Forget about the looming Iran War. There is a war against women, people! It is so much more fun to be scared about imaginary things, like Rick Santorum. Heck, even I write the occasional blog post about Rick Santorum. But I don't give this marginal human being power and nonstop publicity he doesn't deserve in order to make "my side" look good.

"Villager" pundit Ezra Klein of The Washington Post and MSDNC is beginning to see the light. A little. He explains "why voters can't trust their own political party." It's because politicians care more about getting elected than they do about the needs of voters. Duh.  But it is not the media's job to explain policy to the hoi polloi, sniffs Klein.  They are, after all, just the stenographers: 
Perhaps my biggest frustration with the U.S. news media (and yes, I am a card-carrying member) is that we permit the two parties to decide what is “left” and what is “right.” The way it works, roughly, is that anything Democrats support becomes “left,” and everything Republicans support becomes “right.”
There are good reasons for this. It isn’t the media’s job to police political ideologies, and it wouldn’t be a good idea for us to try. But that leaves ordinary voters in a bit of a tough spot.
Well, at least he is being honest about clarifying his self-imposed limits. It is simply not in his job description to give us a crash course on substance. Klein seems to echo  New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane's infamous column which rhetorically asked if reporters should be calling out politicians on their lies. This paragraph from the Klein piece made me cringe:
Parties -- particularly when they’re in the minority -- care more about power than policy. Perhaps there’s nothing much to be done about this. And as I said, it isn’t clear that the media, or anyone else, should try. But it puts the lie to the narrative that America is really riven by grand ideological disagreements. America is deeply divided on the question of which party should be in power at any given moment. Much of the polarization over policy is driven by that question, not the other way around.
Okay, Ezra. All politicians are scum, but just keep continuing to parrot what they say, give them a free platform and wring your hands in despair. Don't call them out publicly, by name, but do write a generic column every once in awhile to ease your conscience. I guess Ezra never reads ProPublica, or learned about muckraking in college. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Soaking the Poor

It seems so long ago and far away, now that President Obama is spinning around in an oratorical frenzy of populism. But remember last summer, when he offered up draconian cuts to the deficit hawks in exchange for allowing the nation to raise the debt ceiling and pay its bills? It could have been worse, the pragmatists insisted.  He wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, but John Boehner refused.  We bit the bullet on that one, temporarily. The country's credit rating only tanked by one letter. And Obama proudly proved his deficit hawk cred all the same, and bragged at the time that he had cut spending to the lowest levels seen since the Eisenhower Administation. He was a fiscal conservative, and a true believer in the old canard that if the country tightens its belt just like a family does during hard times, the economy will magically burst at the seams. 
Then came the national protest movement known as Occupy, the looming re-election campaign, the continually tanking economy.... and Obama decided it was time to pivot back to pretend progressivism.  He fired his bankster chief of staff and hired a different bankster chief of staff who is now insisting they never were Austerians. You can't make cuts in a time of recession, they shrill. It's all the Republicans' fault. Call Congress! Pass This Bill!

So, when the White House released its budget last week to minimal fanfare, they tried to gloss over all the de facto austerian discretionary cuts. "It looks worse than it actually is," they insist, counting on nobody actually reading its thousands of pages. "The money is just being switched around.... there's a lot of waste and redundancy.... when ObamaCare finally kicks in years from now, it'll all be good."

Ha, ha, ha. I spent half an hour skimming the Osterity Budget last night. A cursory glance reveals that if you happen to be in that one third of Americans now classified as either dirt poor or teetering on the brink, Fiscal Year 2013 is not going to be very good for you. I will be blunt: this President does not give a rat's ass about poor people. The cuts may seem miniscule in the big picture, but for people who must count every penny, they are literally the difference between life and death. Here is the official White House budget-unveiling propaganda:

We now face a make-or-break moment for the middle class and those trying to reach it. After decades of eroding middle-class security as those at the very top saw their incomes rise as never before and after a historic recession that plunged our economy into a crisis from which we are still fighting to recover, it is time to construct an economy that is built to last.
The President’s 2013 Budget is built around the idea that our country does best when everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same rules. We must transform our economy from one focused on speculating, spending, and borrowing to one constructed on the solid foundation of educating, innovating, and building. That begins with putting the Nation on a path to living within our means – by cutting wasteful spending, asking all Americans to shoulder their fair share, and making tough choices on some things we cannot afford, while keeping the investments we need to grow the economy and create jobs. The Budget targets scarce federal resources to the areas critical to growing the economy and restoring middle-class security: education and skills for American workers, innovation and research and development, clean energy, and infrastructure.
The Budget is a blueprint for how we can rebuild an economy where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded..
As you can tell, Obama still hasn't been able to completely wean himself from the bad habit of comparing the most powerful country on earth with a family living within its means. And he is talking only to the "hard-working folks" about getting a fair shake and fair shot. If you are poor, old or disabled, then you are not doing your fair share and this budget makes it painfully clear that you have no shot at reaching that fabled Middle Class.  Here are just a few examples of how this Democratic administration would like to punish our most vulnerable citizens:

Housing for Persons with Disabilities: a cut from $165 million to $150 million. This may seem miniscule, but if you are physically challenged and on a waiting list for an apartment outfitted with ramps, wheel-in showers and other amenities, you are going to have to wait even longer. There is a real shortage of rental units for disabled people as it is. The Obama budget assures us that current construction for special housing will go on. Just no new disabled-friendly housing units, because you have to cut the waste.

Community Block Grants: funding was already drastically cut last year, leading to a nationwide protest by mayors serving inner cities. Now, President Obama proposes to cut 2013 aid to poor neighborhoods nearly in half, from $679 million to $350 million. The reason? The Government Accounting Office and Health and Human Services have determined that there has not been enough "oversight" of entities receiving the grants.  Hmmmm... I guess all those paper bags full of cash being dropped on ghettoes are finding their way into the wrong hands. Drug Lord Hamid Karzai needs it more in Afghanistan, and God knows there is no oversight on the forever wars.

The Job Corps: being cut from $1.703 million to $1.650 million. Another seemingly miniscule, gratuitous cut, from a program designed to train disadvantaged youth. Again, without going into any details or providing one iota of evidence, the White House explains that it's cutting this program in order to launch a "bold reform effort to improve outcomes and strengthen accountability."  Uh-huh. Spend less money to improve something. This is very Paul Ryanesque, using the rationale that youmust destroy something (Medicare) to improve it. Reforming the Job Corps smells like another privatization scheme to me.

Children's Mental Health Services: being cut from $117 million to $84 million. No new grants will be issued, and no needy children newly diagnosed with emotional disturbances will be accepted into existing clinics. No explanation. It is now estimated that a quarter of all children fall below the poverty level. Since economic hardship is a known causative agent in depression and other mental illnesses, it is stunning to me why this budget has not been quadrupled. More totally gratuitous, deficit hawk chest-thumping.

Low Income Home Energy Assistance: there was shocked disbelief last year when the president cut this funding. He is doing it once again, with another cut from the already low $3.472 million to $3.020 million. Luckily, this winter was fairly mild and there are no known cases of people freezing to death because they couldn't afford heating oil. Congress actually restored some of the money Obama had cut last year.

If you thought that the government's fraudclosure settlement with the banks was a kick in the teeth, they are now planning to kick some of the hardest hit victims while they are still down. Obama, while bragging on how he will help upper middle class people adjust their mega-mortgages in exchange for letting the banks get off scot free, wants to make severely poor people contribute a bigger chunk of their meager resources to their subsidized rent payments. I was happy to see an editorial in today's New York Times critical of this heartless plan:
Affordable housing advocates are rightly alarmed by proposals in the White House budget and in Congress that would drive up rents for the nation’s poorest public housing residents, many of whom are in households that subsist on less than $3,000 a year. If the federal government raises rents in housing subsidy programs that shelter about 4.5 million households, it must do so in a way that shields the poorest from eviction and homelessness.
Under current federal law, housing authorities have the option of setting a minimum rent of $50 per month. About a quarter of public housing agencies around the country have set the minimum below that number, allowing some of the poorest families to pay $25 or less. A bill in the House would require that the minimum rent in public housing be raised to $69.45. The White House budget would raise it to $75.
These may seem like small amounts, until you consider households where single parents with two children might be subsisting on food stamps and about $250 in cash payments from the federal public assistance program. Many of these families are already teetering on the verge of homelessness. Some in Congress support raising the minimum rent as an adjustment for inflation, but the resources of poor families generally have not increased.
In the adding insult to injury category, President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner this morning rolled out a brand new plan to cut corporate tax rates in exchange for maybe sewing shut a few of those pesky loopholes with some very cheap thread. Oh, and it's too hard to really fix the Tax Code in less than several years. But it is good politically to say that you'd like to, because it will make the Republicans seem anti-business if they don't agree to it during this election season.

I am feeling shaken. I feel like this country's citizens are being lined up in front of a firing squad and shot. And it isn't fair.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Alternative Presidents Day

Happy Presidents Day, everybody. It's the dregs of yet another three-day weekend in the guise of a VIP un-birthday. Last month it was MLK Jr., celebrated a day late and five decades of civil rights struggles and anti-war activism short. Today, we are required to revel in the February Happies of Washington and Lincoln, owner and freer of slaves respectively. But I don't feel like giving respec', as Da Ali G used to say, even though Abe is one of my faves.

Instead, let us honor three people who are daring to run for the highest office in the land, although they probably don't have a snowball's chance in hell of actually winning or even coming close. That isn't really the point, though, is it?  In this age of Citizens United, money rules politics, and voters are rapidly becoming superfluous.  We are but the warm bodies expected to do our duty and pull the lever for one of the two vetted and pre-approved candidates of the oligarchic duopoly.  But last I checked, we still have our first amendment rights, even though privacy is dead and the right to assemble is pretty much at the whim of the individual municipality and police force.

What alternative candidates and third, fourth, fifth parties are achieving right now is raising public awareness of what is possible, and what we deserve and what abysmally low standards we have set for ourselves as a putative Democracy.  According to polling, most self-identified conservatives actually support progressive causes, such as single payer health care and taxing the rich and ending the wars. Yet, the two sides of the Money Uniparty no longer answer to the will of the electorate.

I am sure there are more outsider parties and people (I am leaving out the Libertarians and Communists, although I may come back to them in a later post), but here is today's trio of independent candidates (links go to their official websites) : Rocky Anderson of the American Justice Party, Jill Stein of the Green Party, and Jerry White of the Socialist Equality Party.

Jerry White

Jill Stein

Rocky Anderson

First, Rocky -- he has the biggest organization of any declared leftist independent thus far.  Former three-term mayor of Salt Lake City, Anderson is an unlikely progressive from a traditional rock-solid conservative state. He ranks as one of the strongest environmentalists who ever held public office.  Unlike the corporatist deficit hawk DINO Barack Obama, Anderson embraced the ideals of Occupy before there even was an Occupy. From a profile of him in The Guardian:
His agenda is a familiar one on the left. Broadly speaking, he wants to break the hold of corrupting corporate influence on the two main parties and give a voice to ordinary working people. It also chimes with the general thrust of the Occupy movement, even though the latter has steered clear of engagement with electoral politics.
"The more time has gone on, the more it has become clear that we're not going see change in this country with these two parties," he says. "There are lots of good individuals in the Democratic party, [but] without Democrats voting the way they did in Congress, we wouldn't have invaded Iraq. We wouldn't have suffered as a nation because of these Bush tax cuts.
"Obama received more money from Wall Street than any presidential candidate ever. And they got a great return on their investment."
This would represent the first attempt to apply the principles of the Occupy movement within the electoral area. Anderson points out discussions about launching the party preceded the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street. But while there are no organisational links, he says there is plenty of common ground. "There is clearly a convergence of interests regarding the concerns we have and the concerns of Occupy Wall Street. There's little I've heard from the Occupy movement that I would disagree with and I think there's little we support that they would disagree with."
Anderson thinks Obama's neopopulism is fraudulent. "How does he, with a straight face, talk about getting jobs back to the U.S. without even mentioning free trade agreements and the need to significantly renegotiate those agreements to put them in better balance in terms of worker rights and environmental protections?" (Anderson has a point -- everybody has conveniently forgotten that textile jobs are headed to South Korean factories peopled by North Korean guest slaves, and that Colombian farmers are still getting beaten up and worse by thugs in the employ of multinational corporations.)

Next up: Jill Stein is a physician from Massachusetts and this election cycle's Green Party candidate. An avid Occupy supporter, she is running on a platform for a "Green New Deal" --
the objective of which would be to employ "every American willing and able to work" to address "climate change...[and the] converging water, soil, fisheries, forest, and fossil fuel crises" by working towards "sustainable energy, transportation and production infrastructure: clean renewable energy generation, energy efficiency, intra-city mass transit and inter-city railroads, “complete streets” that safely encourage bike and pedestrian traffic, regional food systems based on sustainable organic agriculture, and clean manufacturing of the goods needed to support this sustainable economy". The initial cost of the Green New Deal would be funded by various mechanisms, including "taxing Wall Street speculation, off shore tax havens, millionaires and multimillion dollar estates" as well as a 30% reduction in the U.S. military budget.
The four points of the Stein Green New Deal are the right to a job at a living wage; the transition to a sustainable, green economy; a financial sector serving Americans; and citizen empowerment. Sounds eminently logical and simple and refreshingly socialistic.

Which brings us to our third candidate and party, which you may not be as familiar with, although the principles of all three overlap.  The Socialist Equality platform stresses a strong labor movement, as originally advocated by Karl Marx, and is unabashedly anti-capitalist. If nothing else, it should demonstrate to the audiences of Romney and his ilk that Barack Obama is about as far right to socialism as it's possible to get without plummeting off a cliff.

White also ran on the Socialist Equality ticket in 2008 against Obama and McCain. A labor journalist, he is a long-time union organizer and strong proponent of the Auto Workers movement in Michigan. He is not at all impressed with Obama's auto industry bailout, which resulted in a draconian reduction in wages and benefits and record profits for the industry.  Here is what he has to say about Obama's playing of the populist card for purposes of his own re-election:
Yet under his watch, not a single banker, hedge fund manager or financial regulator responsible for the economic catastrophe has been prosecuted, let alone convicted. On the contrary, the president has handed them the keys to the national treasury and tailored his policies to enable them to continue their speculative activities and make more money than ever.
The fury of the state has been reserved for those who have sought to protest against the plundering of society by the financial elite and the resulting growth of poverty, unemployment and inequality. They, for the most part student youth, have been assaulted by baton-wielding police in riot gear, packing rubber bullets and using pepper spray. The protesters have been arrested in the thousands. Obama, with his silence, has signaled his support for these attacks, carried out for the most part by Democratic mayors.
The SEP platform includes an international working class movement (as opposed to one limited to the United States) and public ownership of banks and other institutions. Writes White: "There are some who say this is unrealistic. But what can be more unrealistic than maintaining a system that perpetuates the wealth of the few at the expense of the many? Is it more realistic to tell workers that they must accept a 50 percent wage cut to keep their jobs, or to tell the elderly that they must go without medical care, or to tell the young that they must go without an education?"

On this Presidents Day, depressed as you may be by the corrupt status quo, rejoice that there are people who refuse to lie down and take it. Activism lives. The left is resurging because there is no other choice. Rumors of the demise of the Occupy movement are grossly exaggerated. We don't have to settle for Rombama or Bamtorum. Go ahead. Spoil their day.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rick Transit Gloria Mundi

Unintelligent Design
 Try as I might, I have been unable to escape the voice and visage of Rick Santorum, the overgrown Boy Scout engaged in a futile struggle to contain the psychosis bubbling just beneath the surface of his prim sweater vest. The guy even has his name creepily embroidered on his trademark couture. Why? Does he have parochial school flashbacks of getting lost after being left off at the wrong bus stop? I wouldn't be surprised if he had his phone number Sharpie-marked on an Opus Dei sackcloth undershirt too.

Just when we thought the Republican freak show had reached its apogee with Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum has burst forth in all his glory, fire and brimstone, spiked garter belts and chains. Even his own daughter inadvertently admits that he is demented. "So, here we go", she blogged last summer on Backstage with the Santorums. "We are out of the gates and into the race … and what a crazy journey it will be!"

Actually, Daddy did not so much decide to run for president, as he was called by God. In the same blog entry, Elizabeth Santorum writes that it took "months of discernment" for "Our Father", as she calls him, to announce. Not discussions with the family, nor talks with think tanks and pollsters. Discernment is a Catholic theological term, a form of soul-searching and meditation so intense that one can reach the point of literal arousal by the Holy Spirit. It goes way beyond prayer. It's what happens when a religious person is "called" by God to a vocation as a priest or nun. I think it is fairly obvious that Rick Santorum is not so much running for public office as he is on a one-man crusade to impose his medievalist oddball fantasies on an unsuspecting body politic.

Direct from the Eldest Daughter of the Santorum Cult/Clan:
Yesterday was a big day in the Santorum household. After long months of discernment, my father has decided to run for president of the United States of America. This morning, as I drove my sister Sarah Maria to school, she looked over at me and said, “Wow. I think I’m still absorbing how important yesterday was!” I had to agree.  
So, I’ll give a recap of yesterdays “behind the scenes” excitement. My Dad spent the morning doing radio and television interviews, while my Mom and I got all six of my siblings ready to go. As you can imagine, getting everyone ready is never an easy task. From “Oh no, did you pack the hairbrush?” to “Patrick, those had better not be grass stains on your khakis,” let’s just say that we averted several minor crises. Bella is often the easiest to get ready because she always looks adorable in whatever she’s wearing. Her sweet smile and peaceful demeanor are a constant source of joy for our family.   
What a typical family, right down to the authentic dialogue, huh? But I have one quibble. Elizabeth says she drove her younger sister to school. Aren't the Santorum spawn all supposed to be home-schooled by the parents? At least, that is what Dad brags about. Or are the kids driven around the block a few times before they are dropped right back at Home School?  Is Home School the name of an elite private academy nestled amidst the Homeland Security complex in Northern Virginia, where the Santorums have a home and initially got Pennsylvania state funding for their Home School? I emailed the campaign to ask, but they have not yet replied. Do I discern a brush-off?

 (The Santorum sons did go to an all-boys Catholic school in Washington, DC for a time -- see above Opus Dei link. The place was so insulated that rumor had it that secular mothers put condoms in their son's Christmas stockings.)

The Ricktus (he has the preternatural grin of a surprised corpse) was all over the TV this morning, rantsoruming about Obama's "phony ideology." Unfortunately, he is not complaining about  presidential corporatism or crony capitalism or even the usual straw-man socialism, because Rick unabashedly adores the One Percent God. Monuments and statues are erected in honor of the titans of industry and finance, says Rick, who probably missed the chapters on heresy and idol worship in Catechism Class. It is the Gospel of Inequality Rulz!

He also seems to take the story of Adam and Eve quite literally. He sunk even deeper into his own primordial ooze when he told one TV interviewer that Obama is wrong to put the fate of the earth before Man, who shall have dominion over it:
"I wasn't suggesting the president's not a Christian. I accept the fact the president's a Christian. I just said that when you have a world view that elevates the world above man, and says that we can't take those resources because we're going to harm the Earth by things that are frankly just not scientifically proven, like for example the politicization of the whole global warming debate, I mean this is just all an attempt to centralize power and give more power to the government. This is not questioning the president's beliefs in Christianity. I'm talking about the belief that man should be in charge of the Earth, and have dominion on it, and be good stewards of it."
The anti-Environmental Protection Agency crowd must have loved this. The checks from the polluting Koch Brothers are in the mail even as we speak.

Rick, along with alcoholic Arizona Governor Jan Drinkwine Brewer, also seems to have a severed head fetish. In his Saturday column, New York Times writer Charles Blow recounts how Santorum has actually foretold the Second Coming of the French Revolution:
Also last week, he suggested that liberals and the president were leading religious people into oppression and even beheadings. I kid you not. Santorum said: “They are taking faith and crushing it. Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is a government that gives you rights. What’s left are no unalienable rights. What’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left in France became the guillotine.”
Obama as Robespierre. Ohhh-kay. Somebody needs to stage an intervention. Or a casting call for The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Cutting the Crap

Have you heard about the special face armor that Chicago police will be wearing this spring at the G-8/NATO summits? Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is afraid that Occupiers will fight back against oligarchic bullshit by hurling some shit of their own. They may even retaliate against pepper spray attacks by splashing urine into the faces of the fuzz! --
Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Shields demanded the new shields to prevent officers from being blinded by bags of urine and feces thrown at them by “anarchists” and other hard-core protesters....
“We have 9,500 patrol officers. Every one of them needs a new shield because every one of them has the old one and it’s completely ineffective. It’s a very thin plexi-glass. If you press on it with your thumb, it would crack. If you threw a rock at it, it will pop off. Water can seep right through. Any liquid can seep right through,” Shields said.
“Rioters known to attend NATO and G-8 meetings have been known to throw bags of urine and bags of feces at police. Chicago Police officers need a shield that can adapt to what is being thrown at them.”
Wow. It seems we just cannot escape from nightmare scenarios of flying feces. Rick "Google-It" Santorum's SuperPac is running an ad in which Mitt Romney shoots brown stuff from a rifle at the poor hapless sweater-vested Rick. It is supposed to be mud, but I don't buy it. It looks suspiciously like projectile doggie doo to me, the kind that poor Seamus suffered from during his nightmare ride on the top of the Romney hellwagon. You decide -- check it out here.

If anybody needs protection from all the crap, it's us -- you know, the regular people. We're the ones who need face shields, brain armor against all the propaganda. The effluent flies fast and furious, it clogs up the toilet of political discourse, and it tends to stick. There is just way too much of it to cut through every single day, but let's give it a try anyway.

First of all is the fiasco of fraudclosure fecklessness. It leaked out today that this is indeed just one more bailout for the banks, and that the penalties they will pay, such as they are, in reality will be coming from taxpayers and investors. This is solidly crappy. Since when is it legal for a rapist to force his victim to serve his sentence?  Or say that you go to court, you win a judgment, but the loser is then allowed to freeze your bank account instead of the other way around? That is pretty much what the newest bailout does. Read more about it here and here. (H/T to readers Neil and Denis).

Oh, and that bipartishit payroll tax holiday stinks too. Instead of taxing the rich to help the poor middle class as Obama pretended to promise, they'll be taxing the middle class to throw a crumb to the middle class. The length of time you can collect unemployment benefits will be reduced. Applicants may have to undergo drug testing, even though statistics show that only about 2% of the newly jobless have a substance abuse problem. (You need to feel guilt-ridden and demonized to collect on an insurance policy that you paid into, because this way, the lie that it's an "entitlement" is more easily swallowed by voters. Divide and conquer!) In certain locales, you will be required to work for no pay in order to collect on your own insurance. Federal employees will be forced to contribute more to their pension plans. (another example of divide and conquer: placate the red-state masses by making the unions pay!)  Congress will actually auction off the public airwaves to the highest bidders. In exchange for partially funding the FICA holiday,  the telecoms may well be given carte blance to screw us into perpetuity, via rate hikes and monopolies. Privatization continues apace.

But what, inquiring minds want to know, about the Buffett Rule?  You know, the Rule that Obama has made the centerpiece of his An America Built to Last re-election campaign. This latest hurling of jingoistic bullshit says that everybody should have a fair shot, and do their fair share. The Rule is personified by Warren Buffett's secretary, who pays a higher effective tax rate than her billionaire boss. Obama was so sincere about it that he even used her as a prop in the First Lady's box during the State of the Union speech.

Well, not so fast. It turns out that the Buffett Rule is merely an aspirational thing. Obama did not even include it in his own budget! From Annie Lowrey of the New York Times:
But the White House says it is a “guideline,” rather than a legislative initiative. And it says it prefers not to establish the Buffett Rule without a broader overhaul of the tax code, though it would support a Congressional effort to carry it out alone.
“This is the guiding principle of tax reform,” said Jason Furman, principal deputy director of the White House’s National Economic Council. “To some degree, it’s a specific policy, where we set a floor, a minimum rate. And to some degree, it is a statement of principle of how you would like to design the tax system.”
So, in effect, Obama punted it over to the same Congress which he purports to disdain because of its chronic gridlock. This is pure unadulterated presidential bullshit, and I am surprised this story is not getting more outraged play. Timothy Geithner, meanwhile, says an overhaul of the corporate tax code will take "years." 

One more calling out of crap and I'm done. Remember how Team Obama defended their slinking into SuperPac territory this week by saying the Republicans are outpacing them in campaign money? The January results are in, and Obama raked in a record $29.1 million. In only one month. Romney has yet to post his figures, but they are expected to be much less. And this does not, of course, take into account the millions the president is raising during a two-day marathon fundraiser on the West Coast, nor the back-to-back Wall Street cash orgies planned on March 1. Obama, apparently, is playing the age card as part of his plea to wealthy donors:
Obama was concluding a three-day swing of California and Washington that included eight fundraisers, where he was expected to raise more than $8 million.
Obama repeatedly tells his audiences that this election will be more difficult.
"And that's not going to be easy because, first of all, I'm older and I'm grayer," he told about 70 high-dollar contributors in San Francisco on Thursday night.
It's nice to know that Obama is an equal opportunity bullshit artist, anyway. Gullibility knows no class boundaries.