Tuesday, June 28, 2011

America's Rich: Taking Their Ball And Going Home

In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan led the conservative charge in reducing government infrastructure and welfare spending, reducing the tax burden on America’s wealthy, and reducing government regulation of private enterprise. One of the major effects these policies had was to increase the United States’ GDP drastically: the other was to severely reduce the share of the GDP that the average American enjoyed.

The process went something like this: without regulation or taxation, U.S. corporations (owned by a select few Americans, usually older white males) have the freedom to export jobs for cheaper production, reduce wages and reduce overhead by curbing safety and environmental standards. This excess wealth (the increase in GDP mentioned earlier) is concentrated into the hands of the owners, who increase their pay and compensation exponentially.

The gains made by Unions and organized labor at the beginning of the 20th century were wiped out as the jobs were exported to other countries: the average American’s share of national income drastically declined after Reagan was elected while the share by the already wealthy increased further. CEO compensation has increased 425% since 1981, but the national average of income has only increased 26%.

Obviously exporting labor is unsustainable: at some point we can’t ship any more jobs overseas. Unfortunately, because of the disparity of the last three decades the U.S. economy is entirely controlled by these economic elite, so that even when a company’s stock plummets, they’ll still raise executive compensation and tell Union workers that their compensation is the reason that the company’s overhead is high.

With the lack of funding in education, social services and infrastructure building in the last three decades, our work force is unable to keep up with the rising cost of education (leading to decrease in both income and productivity in American workers, mostly due to government policy), our populace is in increasing levels of poverty and our infrastructure is crumbling. As the effects of the decline are felt, more and more people support raising taxes on the wealthy, as a direct response to the disproportionate income, wealth and influence in the government.

The response by the extremely wealthy has been extraordinarily childish: rather than engage in their civic responsibility to build their communities, corporations and wealthy Americans all over the nation are threatening to pack up and move somewhere cheaper. Caterpillar, Jimmy Johns and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange all threatened to leave Illinois because of an increase in income taxes, Twitter threatened to leave San Francisco because of local tax rates, and Standard & Poor’s threatened to move to New Jersey if they didn’t get “special tax breaks”.

The recent trend of threatening to leave might be relatively new, but the concept (the wealthy vacating a community to abdicate social responsibility) is a time-honored tradition. Moving your business to a tax haven (a country with a much lower taxation rate) in order to avoid your tax burden has become so common since the 1970’s that Nicholas Shaxson calls it “the heart of the global economy”. In fact, a single building in the Cayman Islands is home to more than 18,800 firms, including Coca-Cola, Oracle and Intel.

So what can we do about it? Passing laws to restrict the freedom of movement sets a dangerous precedent and reeks of tyranny, but you don’t need to restrict movement to restrict tax shelters (any more than you need to actually move to the Cayman Islands to get the tax break). The people can demand a closure of these tax holes by their Congressional representatives, but what about the moving itself? What can be done when the wealthy take their money and flee to other countries?

The truth is that the wealthy already consume products made in foreign countries and do very little to contribute to the standard of living of the American people. While the GDP would decrease from a mass exodus of the upper echelon of society, it would focus our economy more on providing for the citizens that are left: the American middle class. When the rich next threaten to take their ball and leave, I urge Americans everywhere to call their bluff and speak plainly: we’re better off without them.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Israel's Manifest Destiny

Nineteenth century America was pockmarked with deplorable actions which were justified with the concept of “Manifest Destiny” (a quasi-religious ‘right’ for America to expand it’s borders across all of North America), notably the genocide of the indigenous Americans. Similarly, since its creation in 1948 (and the ensuing conflict), Israel has expelled Palestinians from their homes, prohibited economic development and annexed Palestinian land- all justified with a religious mandate to return ‘home’.

The first major expulsion of Palestinians (called the “nakba”, or catastrophe, by the refugees) came during the war succeeding the creation of Israel by the UN- over 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes, and Israel quickly passed laws and demolished homes to prohibit the Palestinians from returning. After 1948, Israel continued to expand it’s borders by evicting Palestinians (or bulldozing their homes, if they would not leave). The similarities to The Trail of Tears are striking- an indigenous people forced to away from their homes and prohibited from returning by law.

The expansion is justified several ways. The first of which is the concept, “to the victor goes the spoils,” with the idea being that because Israel won the Six Day War, they have a right to claim land that was previously occupied by Jordan. The Mexican-American war can serve as a very close analogy to the Six Day War- they were both aggressive wars, both resulted in expanded borders for the victor, and both are justified by a predestined mandate to expand their territories. The idea that the annexation of Jerusalem is justified by war would be much more convincing (though still, in my opinion, immoral) if the land was being taken from Jordanian civilians. While it’s true that Jordan occupied Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories at the time of the war, the civilians that were disenfranchised were natives to the land- Palestinians. Through no fault of their own, these citizens were forced out of homes they had been in for years.

Another rationale for both Manifest Destiny and Israel’s expansion is a religious right to the land. The first usage of the term ‘manifest destiny’ said that the North American continent was “allotted by Providence”. In other words, the land was a God-given right. Prime Minister Netanyahu told the Israeli Parliament last year that Jerusalem was Israel’s "eternal and indivisible" capital, and claimed that it’s mention in the Torah 850 times was justification for it’s annexation.

The similarities don’t end there. The Indian Removal Act bears a striking resemblance to the use of "settlement expansion, house demolitions, discriminatory housing policies and the West Bank (Separation) barrier as a way of 'actively pursuing the illegal annexation' of East Jerusalem,” as revealed by an EU in a confidential report filed in 2008. The Indian Appropriations Acts are similar to the measures taken by Israel to prevent economic growth in Palestine, including the sanctions and blockades imposed by Israel, in that they arbitrarily limit trade on certain luxury goods (alcohol and chocolate, for instance) among the indigenous people. The massacres during Operation Hiram by the IDF are similar in nature (though much less prolific) to the massacres of Native Americans by the United States military.

The term “manifest destiny” isn’t very popular in America any more, but our imperialism remains (as demonstrated by our intervention in Iraq and Pakistan, among others). Israel’s expansion onto lands previously occupied by Palestinians is increasingly controversial (with human rights organizations in Israel, such as B’Tselem advocating the cessation of violent annexation), but it remains to be seen if the lasting influence of that expansion on foreign policy and military doctrine will mirror Manifest Destiny’s effect on the United States.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

US Drone Strikes Threaten Relationship with Pakistan

Pakistan plays a pivotal role in our war in Afghanistan. Most of the supplies and equipment used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan are shipped in from Pakistan's northwest border (along the Waziristan region and in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province), and that same area is contested by Taliban insurgency. To secure it's supply routes and ensure the defeat of Taliban forces, the US employs unmanned drones to attack suspicious targets. These drone strikes are illegal, immoral and are alienating Pakistan from it's US ally.

The US has no legal standing to removing sovereignty from Pakistan- they pose no threat the the United States (even the Taliban in northern Waziristan pose no direct threat to the US). By launching attacks into Pakistan, the US is committing "a violation of our sovereignty," according to Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit. The UN Human Rights Council's special investigator Phil Aston stated "the Central Intelligence Agency is running a program that is killing significant numbers of people and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international laws". Interior Minister Rehman Malik agreed, stating unambiguously that, "drone attacks are violating Pakistan's sovereignty". Pakistan's parliament voted just yesterday to disallow any drone attacks by the US: "Such drone attacks must be stopped forthwith, failing which the government will be constrained to consider taking necessary steps including withdrawal of (the) transit facility allowed to NATO". Contrast this democratically set mandate to the US' actual policy: US drone strikes are set to intensify in Pakistan, and just one day before the Parliamentary action US officials confirmed that the drone strikes will continue, even after bin Laden's death.

Apart from the illegality of the drone strikes, their inefficiency and inaccuracy are so abyssal that it renders them indefensible. The success rates of the drone strikes are an astoundingly low 2%- at $10.5 million per drone (with the next generation model slated to cost up to $15 million), such a low mission success rate can't be justified. The repeated failure of the strikes to kill the correct people isn't just incompetent and expensive, either- it results in innocent, civilian casualties. Almost one thousand Pakistani civilians were killed by drones in 2010 alone, and Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution places the ratio of combatants to civilians killed by the drone strikes as ten to one.

The effect that this has had on US/Pakistani relations is made clear by the actions of the Pakistani government, who are understandably concerned with this loss of Sovereignty and are responding with saber rattling by the head of the air force, Rao Qamar Suleman who stated that they "may shoot down US drones". Another (and perhaps more likely) outcome would be a shut down of the supply lines by Pakistan itself (a similar shutdown was threatened in 2008), undermining our military position in Afghanistan. Pakistan's President has repeatedly requested that we share intelligence and stop the drone attacks, and his requests have been ignored. US politicians publicly and directly contradict Pakistani officials about the drone program, and the US military feels comfortable pledging to respect the sovereignty of Pakistan only hours before an unapproved drone strike. It's not clear exactly how far each nation is willing to give, but with the US' steadfast advocation for these drone raids and the Pakistani population's overwhelming opposition to them, it's clear that the escalating tensions must eventually crescendo.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tunisia and what we can learn

Tunisia's uprising is extraordinarily interesting. Of course, seeing people stand up against corruption is always heartening, but it also gives incite into what is and is not effective for people advocating for change with limited means to do so legally. In an interview with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, Jual Cole explains that it's not just an uprising with a singular source:

All revolutions are multiple revolutions happening at the same time. So there’s a strong element of economic protest. There’s a class element. Twenty percent of college graduates are unemployed. There’s extreme poverty in the rural areas. And the regime was doing things that interfered with economic development. They would use the banks to give out loans to their cronies, and then the cronies wouldn’t pay back the banks, so they were undermining the financial system. And that made it—and the extremeness of the dictatorship, the demands constantly for bribes, discouraged foreign investment. So the regime was all about itself. It was doing things that were counterproductive. And it injured the interests of many social groups—the college-educated, the workers. Now, the three ministers that pulled back out of the national unity government today were from the General Union of Tunisian Workers, which is an old, longstanding labor organization. So, it was a mass movement; it included people from all kinds of backgrounds.

Juan Cole continues to impress me. It's easy to think of revolutionaries as a monolithic group, but the reason so few are successful is because the reality is much different than the ideal. Though direct opposition to a revolt often quashes it, the times that violence attain the desired effect of suppression require different tactics.

The Tunisian government is attempting perhaps the most insidious of tactics to deal with the revolution: fracturing. The idea being to give concessions to some of the groups while leaving the rest oppressed. It was particularly effective against the labor movements of the early 1900's whose members were often deeply bigoted white supremacists (though not nearly as violent as generations previous and relatively innocuous compared to violent racists in the same time period).

The Tunisians government has already tried a few concessions. The BBC describes them as "dramatic", but based on the details available they seem quite sparse. The president has promised to stand down in 2014 and to reduce food prices. Investigations have been opened into the President, his bank accounts and his financial connection to his network of nepotism. The curfew has been reduced (though not removed), but that might be the only real, substantial change.

The Tunisian protesters, to their merit, seem unfazed. They seem to recognize that promises made while they are active are unlikely to be followed through upon by the dictator if he's allowed to retake control, and very little has changed since then. If they stay together, I'll be excited to see how far they can take their country with regards to eliminating corruption and obtaining truly democratic representation.

If the citizens of the US with legitimate grievances stood together in solidarity, I wonder what they could achieve. I don't think any US politician would be willing to use physical violence on nonviolent unarmed US citizens without due process (though they felt it was appropriate with armed citizens in Waco, and unarmed citizens abroad like Gulet Mohamed, and unarmed non-citizens like New Americans without legal papers), so the response will definitely be to capitulate to certain interests and leave the others alone.

We've already seen this tactic effectively employed for the last few years. A big ceremonious (and imaginary) closing of Guantanamo while we continue to torture abroad, a repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell while the Defense of Marriage Act stands, pretending to pull out of Iraq while our unmanned death machines reign carnage on Pashtun weddings have all left the progressives in America divided.

Obama, we can all agree, was better than McCain. So, we fought for Obama (and we won)! With that victory, though, came the misconception that Obama was 'on our side'. We had no figure on the left and no venue to reach the level of people that the conservative media (Fox, AM radio) and the government aligned media (NPR, NYT, MSNBC, CNN, etc.) do every day. We have the occasional Amy Goodman and Glenn Greenwald, but their voices were far eclipsed by the status-quo noise machine.

Our system is dominated by money. It controls how effectively information is spread, how the public is exposed to that information and the 'groupthink' opinion is hoisted off onto anyone who sees a seed of truth and doesn't have the time, motivation or resources to investigate further. We need to stop looking to media figures or even executive leaders for cue and start concentrating on the policy, not the people.

Going through all those quotes by Dr. King yesterday, I was reminded of his triple evils of poverty, war and racism and how connected they are. Poverty would not exist in our world today without excess. Our resources are vast and our production effective beyond belief. Poverty exists because we allow it to exist every time we focus our resources on luxuries for the wealthy instead of necessities for our peers.

War serves only to pad the pockets of the owners of Lockheed Martin, Halliburton/KBR, Blackwater/XE and other war profiteers. Without the profit motive and our glorification of violent conflict, our politicians wouldn't feel so driven to it.

Racism may seem less tied to economic exploitation now than it did in Dr. King's time, but that's only because a veil draped over the connection has been propagated by that same pro-status-quo media machine. The source of the concentration of money can easily be traced to a time when Africans were exploited by wealthy whites (read: all of American History). I believe that the reason 'othering' (not just racism but also sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc) is so prevalent and sustained in our society is the benefit that the 'upper class' (those that benefit most from societies current structure) perpetuate it. In this sense, a sort of Reaganomics of ideas exists; the wealthy reward those media outlets that parrot their opinions with investment and commercial capital and the ideas 'trickle down' to the rest of us.

These three evils are symptoms of the real disease: economic exploitation. Only when everyone who is harmed by corporate, government and societal oppression comes to realize the singular source and fight against it together will the system (which has been built to last and has a myriad of tools and resources to combat change at it's disposal) be formed by the people like a true democracy, rather than by moneyed interests like the plutocracy we're degenerating into.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Global Warming Exists

Global Warming is one of those hot-button issues that's highly politicized, controversial and somewhat arcane, due to the highly technical nature of the information. This is compounded by the fact that very there's a great deal of money that stands in opposition to the Science; Exxon can't afford for Global Warming to be a Scientific fact any more than Philip Morris could afford for cigarettes to cause cancer. In both cases, the companies funded 'research' that challenges the conclusions of objective scientists in order to create doubt in the public's mind on sound Science. George Monbiot at The Gaurdian shows the conflict of interest (emphasis added);

The website Exxonsecrets.org, using data found in the company's official documents, lists 124 organisations that have taken money from the company or work closely with those that have. These organisations take a consistent line on climate change: that the science is contradictory, the scientists are split, environmentalists are charlatans, liars or lunatics, and if governments took action to prevent global warming, they would be endangering the global economy for no good reason. The findings these organisations dislike are labelled "junk science". The findings they welcome are labelled "sound science".

Among the organisations that have been funded by Exxon are such well-known websites and lobby groups as TechCentralStation, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Some of those on the list have names that make them look like grassroots citizens' organisations or academic bodies: the Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, for example. One or two of them, such as the Congress of Racial Equality, are citizens' organisations or academic bodies, but the line they take on climate change is very much like that of the other sponsored groups. While all these groups are based in America, their publications are read and cited, and their staff are interviewed and quoted, all over the world.

By funding a large number of organisations, Exxon helps to create the impression that doubt about climate change is widespread. For those who do not understand that scientific findings cannot be trusted if they have not appeared in peer-reviewed journals, the names of these institutes help to suggest that serious researchers are challenging the consensus.

Of course, without proper education about the peer-review process and the scientific basis of climate change, this strategy has proven quite effective (as it has in the past with other issues). So how can you decide (objectively) for yourself? Fortunately, the information you need to understand the issue is freely available online and ready for private use. I'll try to make the case here with the evidence easily available.

First, let's establish that our Earth is warming; NASA First Goddard Institute for Space Study's direct surface temperature analysis shows a steady increase of one degree Celsius from 1880 to 2000 (usisng Radiosondes). Satellite temperature measurements arrive at the same conclusion (from 1982 on), as do the direct surface temperature analysis at the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia. From here, we need to use more abstract methods of temperature measurement, because we didn't measure temperature in a verifiable way before 1880. Using dendrochronology, the study of the rings in trees to verify temperatures, we can get accurate temperature readings for up to 26,000 years ago. We also get accurate temperatures from the last five centuries by drilling bore holes and analyzing the results. The temperature rise is also concluded by indirect analysis; for instance, glaciers melting, sea ice melting, permafrost melting, sea levels rising, sediments and other proxy reconstructions. Yes, there has been melting in past centuries, but it's always been almost trivial compared to the extreme melting of today.

So, we've established that the earth is warming. How do we know that's it man-made though? After all, climate goes through highs and lows naturally- there's a cyclical process that repeats. The cycles that are often cited (but seldom understood) by climate skeptics are called Milankovitch cycles, after the Serbian climatologist. These cycles are caused by slight changes in Earth's tilt and orbit. Wikipedia summarizes it well;
"The Earth's axis completes one full cycle of precession approximately every 26,000 years. At the same time, the elliptical orbit rotates, more slowly, leading to a 23,000-year cycle between the seasons and the orbit. In addition, the angle between Earth's rotational axis and the normal to the plane of its orbit moves from 22.1 degrees to 24.5 degrees and back again on a 41,000-year cycle. Currently, this angle is 23.44 degrees and is decreasing."
The temperature change predictions derives from these cycles are fairly exact, and they aren't anywhere near the temperature changes we're seeing in terms of speed and intensity. So why the difference? The claims that in the Middle Ages, warming was just as extreme are patently false, as are claims that we're 'recovering' from a 'little ice age' (I specifically address these because they're such common falsehoods among climate change deniers). So we have an observation; the climate is becoming warmer more rapidly than we can naturally account for. Scientifically, we'll need a hypothesis to explain the observation, then experiment to test the hypothesis.

We have the benefit of hindsight; a hypothesis has already been proposed. Certain gases, referred to as 'greenhouse gases', absorb infrared radiation. These differ from gases like nitrogen and oxygen that make up most of our atmosphere because those gases reflect, rather than absorb, that radiation. So what happens when that radiation gets absorbed? As I'm sure you've guessed, the temperature rises. We can confirm the correlation (but not the causation) of greenhouse gas levels to temperature changes through ice core data and construct a history of the temperatures relating to green house gases. However, it is true that greenhouse gas levels rise and fall naturally; over a 400,000 year period CO2 levels rose over 100ppm (100 carbon atoms, in parts per million atoms). Unfortunately, we've had that same rise (100ppm) in just the last 150 of our history!

So, we have the hypothesis (greenhouse emissions cause the earth to warm), but how do we test? Well. in addition to testing the radiation absorption in terms of heath in an artificial atmosphere with the same particle count of greenhouse gases as our atmosphere, we can use complex calculations of prediction called Climate models that predict what changes our climate is going to experience. Among the predictions that have been made using the models (all of these are confirmed in the links provided); warming trends in the Arctic have been predicted and demonstrated, sharp and short cooling occurs after a volcano erupts were predicted by our Climate models and is now confirmed thanks to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, current levels of greenhouse gases cause an imbalance of incoming sunlight and outgoing radiation (the radiation has been proven to be spent warming the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), the ocean's surface temperature rose as predicted by the Climate models, surface warming is accompanies by stratosphere cooling as predicted, and the lower mid and upper- troposphere's temperature has risen as predicted.

So, we've established that the Earth's temperature is growing faster than ever before, that it's not a naturally occurring Milankovitch cycle, that the Greenhouse gas rises correlate with temperature rises, that Greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation (causing temperature rises) at predictable levels over time and that we can predict the warming that occurs as a result. The effects of the rise in temperatures are also widely debated (again, by Exxon shills and honest scientists), but the information here demonstrates the reality of the change itself and it's cause.

For more information, I recommend these resources;

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Disproportionate response to American deaths from the right

We went into Afghanistan because of a group of terrorists who killed 6,000 Americans on 9/11. We’ve spent 493,800,000,000 dollars on vengeance for these 6,000 people. Last year alone, 44,000 Americans died of lack of health care. Given that these deaths occur every year and we obviously don’t spend a proportionate amount of cash on them, how can we make sense of this? Is it possible that Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, who both advocate increased spending for the war in Afghanistan, don’t know about this disparity? More likely, they understand that the 44,000 Americans who die every year aren’t “real” Americans like the ones who died in the attack on the World Trade building. They are a lesser, lower class of American who are barely tolerated and constantly under attack by the wealthy. In America, you can kill as many Americans as you want— just as long as they’re poor.

Of course, they're another aspect to this social issue- the money. Joe Lieberman receives money from both the health care industry and the military industrial complex, as does John McCain. They're perfectly aware of how this effects their legislative capabilities- no doubt they rationalize it to themselves as a necessary evil, something that they must do in order to keep their positions. This kind of 'vote for money' trade system works without deviation in American politics. Take, for example, the amendment to the military budget that Al Franken proposed- it limits the ability of groups taking US money to have employees sign contracts that, say, take away legal recourse for being raped. Of course, this means that KBR, previously Halliburton and a huge government funds recipient with a massive lobby, would have to pay financial restitution. 30 Republicans happily sold their vote, even on this blatant issue, and are surprised that the public's opinion is against them.

If we continue to allow the scare tactics of chicken hawk warmongers to control us, we'll slowly be robbed of not only our money, but our rights and means of survival as well. Our social spending policy should be to use our tax dollars in the way that does the most good per dollar- and war is certainly not that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Free Market for individuals, Government aid for corporations

We hear propaganda about personal responsibility and the effectiveness of the free market constantly, but that standard is only applied to the poor. For instance; welfare, foodstamps, rehabilitation centers, leniency on crimes involving theft and free medical care are all examples of things that conservatives decry as government interference in the free market. The Feds, they say, take their money in the form of taxes and unfairly redistribute it into social spending. Why, then, is this argument not applied to all other forms of government spending? If the free market is better for rewarding efficiency, then government subsidies to corporations are decreasing the efficiency that conservatives say will be brought to the people by less government. Of course, this obviously isn't the case; the government subsidies allow those corporations to thrive.

One of the best examples of this is the existence of corporations themselves. An LLC (which stands for "Limited Liability Company") is given special government considerations, both legally and financially. No owners can be sued for actions taken by the company, nor can they be prosecuted for criminal acts that the management is responsible for in an effort to inflate prices. On the surface, these investors are detached from the immoral behavior under a guise of ignorance. What can they do about the decisions of management? They control only the capital supply, not the procedure or the operational day-to-day, so how could they be held responsible for firing labor organizers, dumping chemicals or hazardous working conditions for their workers? Of course, this a flimsy, thinly veiled excuse that's easily dismissed simply by seeing the shareholders take action whenever these things are absent; if a Chief of Operations doesn't stop his employees from Unionizing, or pushes too hard on safety or environmental standards, he is easily replaced (and well compensated to ensure loyalty to 'the company', which means not the employees of the company but rather those that make money from the work of the employees).

Another example are the subsidies that large corporations, exclusively owned by the wealthy elite, receiving not only friendly contracts, but subsidies and grants that amount to money being taken from the taxpayer and given freely to military contractors, agricultural lobbies, health care institutions and others in the guise of aiding struggling Americans. Again, this disguise is transparent when you consider that the money spent on these subsidies could go directly to infrastructure, education or general welfare spending rather than being drained through the corporate sifter and the money pocketed by the already wealthy.

Perhaps the most stark illustration are the recent bailouts and low interest rates for large banks. Rather than the owners of these institutions having their property devalued, the tax payer is penalized and the debts of the wealthy covered. Indeed, the government now lends money with no interest rate to large banks, which in turn charges high interest rates to those it re-lends the money to, allowing the rich owners of Goldman Sachs to post record profits while 49 million Americans go hungry.