Category Archives: Neoliberalism

Our Carceral State

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French philosopher, Michel Foucault once famously argued that society operates as a vast prison. While Foucault’s concerns were with an individual’s freedom constrained in such a system, maybe a more direct analogy to our current situation is how our judiciary and police force is used to control and literally imprison a vast swath of our lower classes.

It is no secret that in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson, much of the city’s income was derived from fines and court fees for minor traffic violations, essentially converting area police work from “public safety” officers to revenue collectors. These violations disproportionately fell on poorer individuals and minorities who may not have had the money to keep their hedges trimmed and their vehicles perfectly equipped. In effect, the tickets and citations amount to a regressive tax on members of our society least able to afford it.

In the wake of the Brown killing, Governor Jay Nixon signed a broad municipal court reform bill that capped court revenue and imposed new requirements in an attempt to end what the bill’s sponsor called predatory practices aimed at the poor. Good. The bill’s primary sponsor, Senator Eric Schmitt, said people have the right “not to be thrown in jail because you’re a couple of weeks … late on a fine for having a taillight out.” He called the current system in place in Ferguson, “taxation by citation.”

“Under this bill, cops will stop being revenue agents and go back to being cops,” Nixon said.

This is all good, too, and certainly the caps on revenue collection by police is a step in the right direction, but in the larger scheme of things, I’m not nearly as sanguine as Governor Nixon is about “cops going back to being ‘cops.’”

…in Southern states groups of designated white men would set out on patrols to round up runaway slaves during the antebellum period. The phrase for these men—paddy rollers, or patrollers — has come down to us as patrolmen or patrol officers and it’s not too much a stretch to suggest that in areas of the deep American South their function is much the same.

For one thing, the historical precedent that they might ‘go back’ toward isn’t exactly edifying, especially in Southern states where groups of designated white men would set out on patrols to round up runaway slaves during the antebellum period. The phrase for these men—paddy rollers, or patrollers — has come down to us as patrolmen or patrol officers and it’s not too much a stretch to suggest that in areas of the deep American South their function is much the same; that is, ensuring the safe keeping of property for the wealthy. In the North, police officers often functioned as barriers between the wealthy elites and the immigrant “hordes.” The history of industrialization and unionization in this country is rife with struggles between union supporters and police officers or private firm surrogates operating in their wake (such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency –fun fact, at the height of its existence, the Pinkertons had more agents than the standing army of the United States of America).

We like to think of police officers as neutral arbiters of the law, itself a neutral amalgam of well thought out rules for living, but whether rounding up runaway slaves or busting union organizers, the police have historically found themselves on the side of property owners. What this means in contemporary America is a focus on things like illegal drug use and sale, vehicle violations, public disturbance rules, and zoning laws that disproportionately hit the poorest members of our society first and hardest. If we run back through just the most noteworthy police shootings in the last year (topping 1,000 according to an unofficial list compiled by the New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/08/us/fatal-police-shooting-accounts.html?_r=0), most of the precipitating causes involved minor infractions, expired inspection stickers, broken signal lights, or tail lights, unpaid fines or alimony. Public service, protecting humans from harm to themselves or to others might be a nice ancillary outcome of a police officer doing his job, but it’s not the main event.

In fact, the idea that police are here to protect us is not much more than a happy slogan. In its landmark decision DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services,the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “the Constitution does not impose a duty on the state and local governments to protect the citizens from criminal harm.” The United States Supreme Court, in the 2005 case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales upheld that decision and extended it to include a state or municipality’s police force– codifying what many folks in poorer neighborhoods had long since suspected: neither the state nor the police have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm.

Strictly speaking, the police are law enforcement officers, they are present to make sure the laws as passed by city, county, and state legislators are followed. Towards that end they write tickets, and citations for breaking the law, make arrest and testify in court about their actions. This narrow interpretation of their duties is often clarified in training on the so called ‘public duty’ doctrine that provides that a “governmental entity owes a duty to the public in general, not to any one individual.”

Police are also warned—constantly—to look out for themselves. According to ex-Officer, Seth Stanton, writing in the Atlantic Magazine, “police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance.” Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. One slogan that is bandied about squad rooms sums up the mind set: “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

Police are trained to fear the public they are nominally intended to serve. During their training “they are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance.” Writes Stanton, “in most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”

“In most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”

If you happen to peruse Police Magazine, you’ll find that the majority of the stories are about violence against police—and the weapons or tactics they can use to keep themselves safe. This month’s issue features a large photo of an Armalite AR-10 20-Inch Tactical Rifle that was initially designed for the US military. To drive home the point, Police magazine’s logo shows the O in policeman segregated by cross hairs, like a target.

Of course, in addition to the protect-thyself-first attitude, there’s also an underlying racial bias; probably because police officers fear blacks more than whites. In 2015, The Washington Post documented 990 fatal shootings by police, 93 of which involved people who were unarmed. “Black men accounted for about 40 percent of the unarmed people fatally shot by police and, when adjusted by population, were seven times as likely as unarmed white men to die from police gunfire.”

“The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black,” said Justin Nix, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Louisville and one of the report’s authors. “This just bolsters our confidence that there is some sort of implicit bias going on,” Nix said. “Officers are perceiving a greater threat when encountered by unarmed black citizens.”

The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black…

The report noted that officers may unconsciously develop biases over time. “In other words, the police — who are trained in the first place to be suspicious — become conditioned to view minorities with added suspicion,” according to the report.

So we have a fearful police force, over trained for self-protection with an underlying bias against minorities whose main job is not to protect citizens but to enforce legal codes that order society for the benefit of property owners (that will likely make a poor person’s life more difficult). Add to the brew, the over militarization of our police force (do we really need armored tanks on civilian streets?) and the fact that most police officer shootings are investigated by the police departments themselves and it shouldn’t be too difficult to understand how deeply dysfunctional the whole shebang is. I had one friend suggest that, given the stress our minority communities are under, it was surprising incidents like Dallas hadn’t happened more frequently.

But they haven’t– and perhaps that’s a testimony to what many police departments are coming to recognize—the necessity for retraining and community engagement. In fact, it’s a sad irony that the Dallas Police department has done an exceptional job in just this area. It’s obvious that Police Chief David Brown –whose own life is rife with personal tragedy—is dedicated to a community outreach program. Just hours before the killings began last Thursday night in Dallas, his officers took time to chat with protesters, even taking selfies with them.

“We saw police officers shaking hands and giving high fives and hugging people and being really in the moment with us,” demonstrator Sharay Santora said.

But then the shooting began, and, as if granted permission, police departments like those in Baton Rouge quickly reverted to form and began arresting activists on private property without cause or due process, much less warrants. In fact, they arrested the individual who provided video evidence of the Alton Sterling shooting. All of this should tell us that police forces in this country are as diverse as their leaders and the communities that they serve. Our own city, Richmond, Virginia, much like Dallas, has done excellent work in reaching out to the various communities here—including, surprisingly, the LGBT community. So it’s not hopeless, but no one solution will fit all the municipalities across the nation, and maybe one of the questions we should be asking is how well our expectations of police service match the reality? After all, as Chief Brown has noted, “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve”

But then the shooting began, and, as if granted permission, police departments like those in Baton Rouge quickly reverted to form and began arresting activists on private property without cause or due process, much less warrants. In fact, they arrested the individual who provided video evidence of the Alton Sterling shooting

Many of our poor neighborhoods have a nearly round the clock police presence—from squad cars anyhow. Police appear, write up infractions, and arrest vagrants, keep an eye on shifty characters, “gangbangers” and the like. They do what they are trained to do. But the result isn’t a working society. The result, as I suggested in the beginning of this essay, is a carceral state.

Right now, if you are an Afro-American male, your odds of being in jail at some point in your life are 1 in 3. I doubt this is because 1 in 3 Afro-American males are genetically predisposed to periodic episodes of violence and criminal behavior. More likely, it has to do with the incredible dearth of job prospects made infinitely worse by a rap sheet and applying while black.

Police officers can’t solve that problem. They aren’t social workers or teachers or medical service personnel, as Brown correctly points out—but the nature of the system we have put in place allows all the problems of our society to flow downward to the cop on the beat whose one job is to enforce the law, but who we mistakenly believe can somehow catch all the detritus of a dysfunctional system and keep it working.

In Michel Foucault’s famous work, Discipline and Punishment, the ruling metaphor is society as a vast prison; a kind of panoptic nightmare—a word derived from Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon which was a prison designed so that every cell is view-able from a raised central location, like a watchtower plunked into the middle of a cell block. The point was to understand and react to the behavior of the individuals in the surrounding cells so as to control them. But even at this rudimentary level we are failing, for it’s obvious we don’t understand the individuals caught in our system and we aren’t really controlling behavior, we’re merely holding them in our prison cells precisely because we don’t know what else to do with them.

You can’t fix a mental health problem with an AR-10, any more than you can fix homelessness with a traffic citation, or drug abuse with an armored vehicle, or unemployment with a prison cell.

Our criminal justice system is trying to repair something it simply isn’t equipped to mend. You can’t fix a mental health problem with an AR-10, any more than you can fix homelessness with a traffic citation, or drug abuse with an armored vehicle, or unemployment with a prison cell. Perhaps if we, as a society, decided that the carceral state was a bad idea; if we decided, instead, to fund jobs programs and provide secure housing for those in need, if, indeed, we provided drug treatment programs instead of felony convictions we might resolve many problems before they become statistics. We can tinker with police community outreach, provide stricter guidelines for engagement and the use of force and institute better ways of policing the police (oh, please let us have a uniform standard for conduct and an external agencies that review police shooting across the nation), but in the end the panacea we are looking for won’t come from a guy or gal on the beat– with or without a gun. They will come from providing adequate resources to all our public workers,  developing jobs programs and training for individuals from all walks of life, and from our own personal engagement with the community in which we live. Maybe it’s time to stop looking to the police to solve the problems of our deeply dysfunctional system. Rather, we should restructure the system so we don’t need the police—or not nearly as much. Maybe it’s time we all signed up.

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I Was an Eighth Grade Communist (and Other Reasons to Vote for Bernie Sanders)

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This really happened. In the eighth grade, prodded by Ms. Spiver, an enthusiastic teacher with an enlightened vision for an open classroom, I had the opportunity to research different governing systems.  I chose communism because the name sounded cool and appeared to frighten everyone. I read about Marx and Lenin and the proletariat of the state and the main idea which I glommed  was to ensure everyone’s basic needs were met. This seemed grand, generous and even beautiful. I quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica at length, and with a flourish, scribbled out three pages in long hand, ending the paper with a makeshift version of the iconic hammer and sickle.

I thought Ms. Spiver would be proud.

The next day I was called into a parent/teachers conference.  This was in Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976 when the rabid anti-communist Senator Jesse Helms graced the Channel six news editorial spot which my father listened to every. single. night.

Ms. Spiver was all ‘tender mercies!’ and ‘Lord child!’ and ‘where did you get such ideas?’ and I wasn’t sure if she was as concerned about my paper and my education as the possibility that Mr. Creigh, who  substituted as an insurance agent on days when he wasn’t playing the principal, might take serious offense. But I explained, and even defended as best I could the idea of equality, and everyone getting what they needed, these all seemed like fine goals. What was the problem?  Ms. Spiver, to her credit, did not try to correct my initial interpretation, but merely advised that my opinion on the matter was somewhat out of step with the adult population of Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976. Mom and dad ushered me home, silent in their Buick. Dad finally parked the car in the lot and turned and proceeded to give me the low down. “Communists are bad because they represent a totalitarian system. They don’t allow freedom.  You understand?”

I nodded my head.

“Okay?”

“Okay.”  That sounded like something to avoid. And the tone in my father’s voice was enough for me to forget my flirtation with alternate political systems until high school when we began looking at the social democratic governments, and I found myself once again intrigued by the idea that a government would be based on people getting what they absolutely needed; regardless of their jobs, social stations or life situations.

Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, to a lesser extent, Germany and Spain. If all these countries pursued such programs, why didn’t we?

My father, with the patience of Job, once again explained what he thought should have been obvious.

“What if I just gave you a dollar every week instead of letting you earn a dollar by mowing the lawn? Hmmmm?”

“I’d have a dollar but I wouldn’t have to mow the lawn.”

Yes, he conceded, okay, but that’s not the point. The point is if you give people something for nothing they’ll take advantage of it. Like all those welfare queens.

By this time, Ronald Reagan was running for high office and was denouncing shady welfare queens that rode around in Cadillacs and bought caviar with tax payer’s money. This activity rankled the hell out of Jesse Helms who never missed an opportunity to denounce the welfare moochers.

Do you want to be a welfare queen?

I decidedly did not want to be a welfare queen. I gathered from my father’s tone that I was not supposed to like the idea of riding around in a Cadillac, eating caviar at the tax payers’ expense, no matter how much fun it might appear.

By the time I entered college, Reagan was in his second term. Taxes had been slashed and the poorer residents of mental homes were dumped onto the city streets.  Despite the loss of tax revenue, billions were being funneled into such patently absurd pursuits as an armed space shield; a so called ‘star wars’  shield that would provide cover for the Western Hemisphere by shooting down missiles aimed to blow up our cities. Since there were none and since billions were being funneled into a useless and unworkable program while the homeless and mentally handicapped were left to fend for themselves, (many times I stood in line with them at the local 7-Eleven), I wrote a few college paper editorials suggesting this kind of activity was ill-advised. I proudly signed my name.

My college Spanish teacher, a middle aged Cuban exile, caught up with me one day.

“I have read what you have written,” she whispered, “You are part of this nuclear freeze movement, too, no?”

“Yes.” I said. Sure I was. Who wouldn’t  be opposed to nuclear weapons lying around waiting to obliterate the world 200 times over?

“Are you a communista?”

Of course I wasn’t a communista! What had that to do with the nuclear freeze movement? But, for her, the nuclear freeze movement was loaded with fellow travelers and communist sympathizers and what not. I tried to ease her mind by telling her I wasn’t a communist, closer to a  democratic socialist, really. This did not appear to help matters.

“You know I come from Cuba. There, when Castro came to power, he forced my family into exile. We had a mansion and servants in Cuba, but when I came to this land, I had to cut my hair and sell it, just to survive. Can you imagine?”

I really couldn’t. “So you were very rich,” I said, “That must have been nice.”

“They stole everything!”

“Right. But now Cuba has much better infant mortality and death rates. It has one of the best medical systems even by Western standards. Cuban doctors help poor people all over the world.”

“So you are a communista!”

“No, I’m not. If I’m anything, I’m a social democrat, like in Finland.”

“It’s the same.”

“No, they’re really different.”

And so I went on to explain to her that one could be a social democrat without falling in lockstep with state run economies like in Cuba or the Soviet Union.  In fact, one of the best examples of social democracy operates as the capitalist heart of Europe: Germany. “They have what they like to refer to as a social market economy. They try to combine the virtues of a market system with the virtues of a social welfare system. You can get a free education, even free higher education, free healthcare and free retirement. Some of your basic essentials are guaranteed by the government, but other stuff, like where you work or what you make is dictated by a private sector economy. Of course, you pay taxes for these things, but the government operates to redistribute the money so it benefits everyone. That is social democracy in a nutshell.”

“It will never work,” she advised me, predicting Germany’s downfall by the end of the decade.

That was 1987. Germany’s still around. It’s 2015. Germany still provides free healthcare, free retirement and free higher education and it is still one of the strongest economies in Europe.  Our economy, conversely, is dogged by huge gaps of inequality, a dysfunctional healthcare system moderately improved by the ACA, insanely expensive higher education costs, and a retirement system whose paltry offerings are even now threatened by reactionary politicians. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world. Our homicide rate is one of the highest. Our infant mortality rate is higher than Cuba’s and is comparable to Serbia. You read that right, Serbia. None of these things are natural or necessary. They are by design because we refuse to grow up like the rest of the civilized Western world and insist on the fairy tale version of capitalism that doesn’t require any funding for public infrastructure or social services beyond the absolute bare essentials. The only thing we want to pour money into is our vastly over sized military which has caused many more problems in the last few decades than it has solved.

The  majority of the Western industrialized world embraces some form of socialized democracy. In our own country the most successful government programs are inherently socialized: Medicare, Social Security. And, of course, our own Defense Department is an almost entirely socialized bureaucracy.  We have patches of socialism all over the place, but the rightwing has done an excellent job demonizing the term. In fact, the last time someone claiming to be a socialist ran for President was nearly a 100 years ago.   His name was Eugene V. Debs. He famously said when he was convicted of violating the Sedition Act in 1918, that “while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Ringing words that beautifully encapsulate a social democrat’s world view.

It’s become increasingly obvious that a strictly free market agenda is disastrous for a people and an economy. One only need look at Kansas under Brownback’s ideological leadership. The state’s surplus has been turned into a catastrophic black hole of debt through a combination of tax cuts for the wealthiest and slashing of public funds. One could see the same disastrous pile up under George W. Bush’s leadership.

The Spanish teacher who accused me of being a communist told me that I needed to ‘grow up.’ The nice thing about Bernie Sanders candidacy is that it  is already grown up.  It assumes responsibility for everyone in the nation, not just those that manage to make the cover of Forbes.  He has tirelessly advocated for the poor and the underclass and, unlike the vast majority of American politicians, assumes it’s okay to travel coach class.  But don’t take it from me that Sanders knows what he’s talking about or that social democracy is a mature governing principle. Take it from that flagship of capitalism, the Economist. In a 2013 article, that magazine declared the social democratic Scandinavian countries, “probably the best governed in the world.”

So there’s no need to carry on with this charade that the ‘socialist’ option cannot win.  We can. Actually, in many areas, we already have. Si, se puede, baby. The only real question is, how soon before the rest of us grow up?

A Few Notes on The Irish Famine for St. Patrick’s Day ~ Jack Johnson

Let’s Begin with Sinead O’Connor’s haunting rendition of “Skibbereen,”

… Oh it’s well I do remember, that bleak

December day,

The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive

Us all away

They set my roof on fire, with their cursed

English spleen

And that’s another reason why I left old

Skibbereen.

St Patrick’s day might be a good time to reflect on the economics of austerity in the midst of plenty that the Irish had to endure.  Neoliberals who advocate ‘austerity’ measures while poor countries teeter on the brink of economic collapse might pay a bit of attention, too. The so-called Irish “famine” has a few useful lessons for everyone nowadays.  First, although a potato blight is commonly blamed for the Irish famine from 1845 to 1852, it might be more accurate to blame an economic system that demanded payment–and food exports– from the Irish peasantry even as their own subsistence crop was rotting on the vine.

Thomas Gallagher points out that during the first winter of the Irish potato famine, as many as 400,000 Irish peasants starved while landlords exported 17 million pounds worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry—food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet profit hungry landlords forced exports to markets abroad.

Like latter-day American Republicans, the Whig administration in England, influenced by the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism, believed that the market would provide the food needed and refused to intervene against these food exports to England. To top it off, the Whig administration then halted the previous government’s food and relief efforts, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food.

According to Peter Gray, in his book The Irish Famine, the government spent £7,000,000 for relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, “representing less than half of one percent of the British gross national product”, considerably less than what they provided to slave owners in the West Indies. Irish Nationalists John Mitchell famously wrote,  “I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a ‘dispensation of Providence;’ and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”

Mitchel was convicted by a packed jury under the newly enacted Treason Felony Act and sentenced to 14 years in the then Irish prison colony of Bermuda. The English policy of exporting food from Ireland while the Irish died of starvation by the thousands continued until 1852 with the engineer of this policy, Charles Trevelyan describing the Famine in 1848 as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil.”  The social evil Trevelyan is referencing is Ireland’s overpopulation. The Famine, he affirmed, was “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected [the ‘cure’ was reducing Ireland’s overpopulation]. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…”

But, alas, in the end, just under a million people died while around 2 million Irish were forced to emigrate, as Nassau Senior, an economics professor at Oxford University had sadly predicted. At the time, Nassau wrote that the Famine “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.”

To Istanbul, with Love

Turkish Uprising

Despite four days worth of intensely concentrated buzz on social media, the Turkish uprising from Gezi park and surrounding Istanbul barely rated a mention in the US mass media market. By Saturday evening, there were more than 200 active demonstrations across 67 Turkish cities, but that only warranted a short flicker on the front of CNN’s website at around 11 o’clock Saturday night, and that was the end of it. The protests were swallowed in the great maw of distraction and neglect that often greets news events on this side of the Atlantic, even if they’re happening here. The Monsanto protests over Memorial Day weekend were equally ignored, for example, despite a great deal of colorful activity. After all, how many demonstrations have bee “die-ins” in the middle of DC, complete with yellow and black striped youth folding over themselves in mock convulsive deaths? How many protests are international in scope, touching over 400 cities in 52 countries across the world? Not to be outdone, the US media equally ignored the Blockupy protests against the ECB in Frankfurt over neoliberal austerity measures, and the hundreds of thousands of citizens converging on one of the oldest cities in the world to defy a ruling party that has tried to turn the last green area of Istanbul into a shopping mall. All three of these events have somehow avoided the attentions of our ever hungry mass media market. All three of these events are also connected in another way: they are all, at bottom, protests against a neoliberal economic order whose ‘free market’ orthodoxy ignores the will of the people.

In their effort to disregard the obvious, the Turkish media has outdone even US media’s best efforts. Turkey’s version of CNN displayed cooking shows and happy penguins while the streets of Istanbul were filled with tear gas and water cannons. The US might be forgiven for not covering the Turkish uprising with as much interest as the protests against the WTO in Seattle, but Turkey can hardly escape blame. Reports of 3G networks being blocked and internet access throttled to a crawl, coupled with a vicious police presence that has killed two and injured thousands– many deliberately—bring to mind the worst acts of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. So much has been used in the way of tear gas and a strange ‘orange’ gas that activists have a new nickname for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan: Chemical Tayyip. In fact, there are reports that the police have used so much tear gas that Istanbul’s police force has had to ship in more from the nearby city of Bursa. As of Sunday evening, June 2nd, the situation escalated and there were reports of live ammunition being fired against activists in Antioch.

The catalyst for the events was a new mall to be built in Gezsi park, one of the last green spaces in Taksim square in the center of Istanbul. But even after days of rioting, Prime Minister Erdogan of the ruling pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), stressed that he would not seek “permission from marauders” to implement the building plans for Taksim. He called the protesters “ideological” and suggested that they were manipulated by the opposition “unable to beat [the government] at the ballot box.”

But that’s more wishful thinking than the full story. As Jason Cassano reports at Jadaliyya.com, Erdogan’s plan for Taksim Square’s redesign is part of an overall neoliberal turn the party has taken. According to Cassano, this protest is the latest manifestation of a movement that has been stirring for some time now.

“The shopping mall is only one component of a plan to entirely redesign Taksim Square into a more car-friendly, tourist-accommodating, and sanitized urban center. Mass protests have also taken place recently to stop the closure of the landmark Emek Cinema, located on I.stiklal Avenue off Taksim Square, which is also being converted into (no surprise) a shopping mall.”

The initial seventy or so folks who camped out at Gezi park called themselves a ‘Right to the City’ movement—and what they are, in the best sense of the word, is a Democratic movement to ensure that the people who live in the city and are affected by the machinations of the ruling party, have their voices heard.

“Istanbul’s city center has been undergoing a rapid process of gentrification, especially in the historic neighborhoods of Sulukule, Tarlaba, Tophane, and Fener-Balat, which housed the poor, the immigrants, the Kurds, and the Roma (gypsies). The goal of this so-called urban renewal is to make room for more tourist attractions, or to—at minimum—clean up the neighborhoods, removing working class urban dwellers who might scare off tourists. The idea is that this new and improved city center will attract foreign investment in Istanbul, which is to be further developed into a financial and cultural hub at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.”

“In short, it will be reduced to a photo-op for tourists who pass through for five minutes and then continue on with their tax-free shopping.”
Occupy Wall Street and Occupy the Hood in the US could talk in great length about such plans, and how devastating they are to the communities involved.

In addition, the AKP has implemented recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol and certain other Islamic rules regarding dress and even lipstick that stewardesses might wear. Although onerous, it’s only part of what defines the fight in Turkey. In fact, Friday, the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) tried to co-opt the uprising by turning the movement into a symbol of culture wars between a secular youth and an older Islamist generation. But when “CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, came to Gezi Park to speak, protesters sang over him, preventing him from being heard.”

But if it’s not a bunch of environmentalists, and not a secular versus religious/traditionalist struggle, what is it?

The struggle in Turkey is not only about environmentalists concerned with the green space or the manifestation of secular vs. religious tensions, it’s about people of a region controlling the destiny of their public spaces, their commons—controlling if there will, in fact, be any public spaces left, or if every last inch of societal space will be given over to private profit. It’s Occupy Wall Street coming to Istanbul, with love.

Let’s hope Istanbul’s ‘Right To The City’ movement–and the hundreds of thousands of activists that have joined them– holds tough and, in the process of struggling to save Gezi park, they start to transform the way such decisions about urban blight and renewal get made: not just in Turkey, but all around the world.

The Rand Paul Filibuster & Bridging the Divide

"Really the great irony of this is that President Obama’s opinion on this is an extension of George Bush’s opinion.”~Rand Paul

For the record, I do not like Rand Paul. I think his libertarian ideology would see the better part of America holding gruel cups like Oliver Twist and begging for more porridge in miserable work houses built circa 1875 to further the blessings of the ever illusive ‘free’ market. The best that I can say about the man is that is he probably isn’t innately evil, he’s just deeply misguided. Like most Republicans he wants rich people to pay almost nothing in taxes, and he wants ‘big’ government to fail. In the infamous phrasing of Grover Norquist, he wants to drown big government in a bathtub—only, drowning ‘big’ government is an abstraction. What he’s really advocating is drowning hundreds of thousands of poor and vulnerable citizens.

But …..BUT….in this one instance, God help me, Rand Paul is right. Last night, he took to the floor of the U.S. Senate and filibustered John Brennan’s nomination to head the C.I.A. For the best of reasons –at least on its surface–which in the realm of politics is all you’re going to get:

“I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the C.I.A.,” Mr. Paul began. “I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”

Let me state categorically that this is a good thing. Habeas Corpus was trashed at the first passage of the Patriot Act and hasn’t been reinstated since–by either the Bush administration or the Obama administration. Anybody that slows our Executive Branch enough to decry the stripping of basic human rights that have been in place since the Magna Carta is doing a good thing. So kudos to Rand Paul for this filibuster.

And Progressives and Democrats and Democrats in name only should take notice. This is what Democracy looks like.

Maybe there’s a sweet spot here– a new ‘grand bargain’ so to speak. And it’s not really that complicated. On one side, don’t murder people without a fair trial  -especially not US citizens – just like we promised in the constitution. Roll back the creeping power of the Executive Branch that began with Nixon, really took wings with George W. Bush and has not slowed an iota under Obama. Reinstate Habeas Corpus, and maintain a standard trial by jury of peers for every citizen (again, just like we promised in the constitution). No more Executive executions, either here or abroad. Suspend the portion of the NDAA that provides for military detention of US citizens on US soil. On the other side, don’t trash our national economy in a childish tantrum. Republican economic policies (and neoliberal economic policies, in general, for that matter) are deeply dysfunctional and everybody knows it. Furthermore, implementing these wildly unpopular austerity measures flies in the face of the popular will—as dictatorial a move in its own right as invoking Executive privilege. The majority of Americans don’t like the austerity measures, don’t agree with the Republican policies and do not want their Social Security savings cut or their Medicare benefits revoked to further enable corporate welfare or tax breaks for millionaires. That’s what these last elections proved.

I’m not holding out much hope, but if our polarized country could agree on those two things: basic principles of fairness, really, maybe we could begin a long overdue national conversation about how to move forward in the 21st century.

 

The Trust Factor


This Tuesday may be the most important election of the new century. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker with the backing of extraction billionaires David and Charles Koch is matched against Tom Barrett who has been raising funds locally and whom the DNC has refused to financially support. In some ways it’s an obvious David and Goliath struggle. The DNC should be funding this to at least approach parity with what the Republicans and surrogates are spending on Walker. But they are not. They are not spending a dime even though Wisconsin was the home of the progressive movement in the 19th Century. In fact, without Wisconsin, our nation’s 20th century would have looked radically different-probably closer to China’s, with no viable unions, no decent labor laws or protections and consequently no worker rights. I don’t think I’m overstating the matter by saying a victory by Scott Walker in Wisconsin will put that all in play once again. Why isn’t the DNC leading on this? Where is Barrack Obama? Can money obviate everything for the Democrats, even the very heart of their own base? This is not a trivial question.

In Tom Barrett’s last debate performance he called Walker a liar (he is one) and said point-blank that the man is about dismantling labor unions as viable entities across the state (which he is doing). He argued that Walker was treating the state as “an experimental dish for the far right.” All true. More importantly, whether the luminaries in the DNC realize it or not, Wisconsin is a bell weather for the rest of the nation, as Charles Pierce has pointed out it in Esquire Magazine: “In 2010, in addition to handing the House of Representatives over to a pack of nihilistic vandals, the Koch Brothers and the rest of the sugar daddies of the Right poured millions into various state campaigns. This produced a crop of governors and state legislators wholly owned and operated by those corporate interests and utterly unmoored from the constituencies they were elected to serve [Note: Virginia is no stranger to this process—witness ALEC and the ignominious machinations of Governor McDonnell on contraceptive rights]. In turn, these folks enacted various policies, and produced various laws, guaranteed to do nothing except reinforce the power of the people who put them in office. This is the first real test of democracy against the money power. Its true national import is that it is the first loud and noisy attempt to roll back the amok time that Republican governors and their pet legislatures have unleashed in the states at the behest of the corporate interests who finance their careers. It is the first serious pushback not only against Scott Walker, but against Dick Snyder’s assault on democracy in Michigan, and Mitch Daniels’s assault on unions in Indiana, and Rick Scott’s assault on voting rights in Florida. None of this was in any way coincidental. It was a national strategy played out in a series of statewide episodes, aimed at establishing the habits of oligarchy on a local basis.”

This is not toast and tea. We’re talking about real lives and real stakes. When Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein makes it perfectly clear that sophisticated investors don’t or at least shouldn’t rely on his word, it’s a cautionary note that we should apply to politicians as well—especially when they take money from those who would destroy the middle class. It’s painful to note that Blankfein was probably more honest in that brief moment than all the speeches by Mitt Romney and Barrack Obama combined. Don’t believe me, he said, and if you do, you’re a sucker. As Joseph Stiglitz writes, Blankfein makes plain that “those who bought the products his bank sold were consenting adults who should have known better. They should have known that Goldman Sachs had the means, and the incentive, to design products that would fail; that they had the means and the incentive to create asymmetries of information—where they knew more about the products than the buyers did—and the means and the incentive to take advantage of those asymmetries.”

Lesson learned. Politicians have the means and the incentives to create “asymmetries of information.” When politicians are purchased on such a large national scale…well, we get what we pay for, don’t we? When a chameleon candidate like Mitt Romney– who even most Republicans don’t like — can achieve a primary victory based almost entirely on access to cash, the system is out of whack. As Wisconsin shows some of the wealthiest individuals and organizations in this country have used their capital to buy liars and sycophants in public places. They are not disinterested in what their money is buying, either. Far from it. Scott Walker, frankly, was probably a bad buy: a little too showy, a little too much the front man. These folks like to remain a bit more discreet. What they really want to purchase is congressional gridlock on reform and regulation. And subsidies and tax cuts, of course. Everyday companies like Exxon seed doubt about global warming swamping the discourse with paid off pseudo scientists and front groups. At the state level, ALEC produces legislation that knee caps environmental regulation and offers a perverse polluter protection ‘model’ legislation that requires the results of environmental audits to be kept secret. While ALEC and Exxon, infuse massive amounts of money into the legislative process, creating “asymmetries of information.” FOX happily ignores or attacks anyone who would suggest there are real public concerns that need to be addressed. FOX News is the propaganda product of billionaire Rupert Murdoch. ALEC has over 5.7 million dollars in ‘corporate sponsorship’. The Koch brothers have more money than the entire state of Wisconsin. Exxon is the largest and most profitable corporation on Earth. It’s not class warfare to suggest money is tilting the scales in a way that makes it impossible for us to honestly govern ourselves. It’s the truth. And, Democrats — take note– only when we tell the truth as Tom Barrett has done in Wisconsin — can we begin to build a country that we can trust.

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APV thanks Jack Johnson once again for a great post. We also extend our whole-hearted support and best wishes to gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett in Wisconsin’s recall election this Tuesday.
DCKennedy

National Teacher Appreciation Week – Last Call

Today is the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week for 2012, but it shouldn’t end. Our teachers earn appreciation from the American people every day. Collectively, they shape our nation and the world, preparing us for every crisis on earth. Individually, they do everything from wiping runny noses and spending their own money on school supplies, to forfeiting more gainful careers for a life of helping the rest of us improve ourselves. I think there is no calling more noble or worthy of our constant praise than that which falls to the devoted teachers who enrich our lives – all year, every year – in every imaginable way.

In recent years, with the help of  ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, our school system has been under attack like never before in our country. So much blame has been placed on our hard-working, dedicated educators it is ridiculous. It comes from misinformation and faulty logic, and it’s just as wrong as saying all parents are to blame for failures in the school system, so we need to demonize parenting.

To honor our teachers this year, take a close look at what’s really happening with education.

Why Isn’t Closing 40 Philadelphia Public Schools National News?

So the carving up of Philadelphia public schools IS a national story. It’s just one that corporate media won’t tell. Not in Philly, not in LA, not in Kansas City or anywhere, for fear that ordinary people might try to write themselves into a leading role. Polls show that the American people don’t want their schools privatized, and don’t believe education should be run by business people like a business. People want to take the money we spend on wars and bailouts and use it on education. Telling the story might give people the notion that the ultimate power is in their hands, not of mayors and chambers of commerce or the so-called “CEOs” of school system. It’s time that story was told, and more of us heard it.

Changing the way we educate America’s students is a priority for three groups – parents, educators and corporatist-neoliberals. And the legislation to change our system is being pushed through by the wrong group – the ones who want to implement their corporate control fantasies. Every benefit of a school system that actually educates the people flies in the face of their profit-driven goals.

They’ve done their best to ruin our schools through neglect, defunding, the demonization of good teachers and by eliminating the protections that allow them to keep teaching. So much disinformation has been spread about it that many good-hearted American parents can only see their children as the “trees”, and are helping to burn down the forest for every American student to come.

Privatization, vouchers, choice, corporate scholarships, internet education – it’s all about neoliberals deconstructing the public good. They want it; they want to control it; they want to sell it; and eventually, they will decide who is entitled to it. What they’re doing is typical: 1) break it 2) get paid to privatize and rebuild it 3) and then funnel the money up to the top. It’s always the same pattern for these people. You can see it in everything they do.

What Matt Taibbi so aptly said about Goldman Sachs applies to neoliberalism in general: It’s “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

We’re turning the education of America’s children over to the same group – the likes of Goldman Sachs – who destroyed our economy with impunity. They’ve already come so far with higher education that extreme personal indebtedness now stunts the beginning of independent life for most students who graduate from college. And typically, they pushed through legislation to remove all the reasonable American protections against bankruptcy and credit abusers for these same students.

Will a Young Generation’s Dreams Be Rescued – Or Bundled and Sold On Wall Street?
Jobless or overextended college graduates aren’t even allowed to declare bankruptcy – a privilege that’s extended to every reckless investor and mismanaged corporation in the nation. Once they finally find work, college graduates face years of garnished wages to repay the loans that funded their often-overpriced educations. If they haven’t repaid that debt by the time they grow old – a very real possibility at the cost of a college education today – they’ll even be forced to surrender part of their Social Security benefits.

That’s indentured servitude.

Meanwhile banks have been slicing and dicing student loans into derivative financial instruments called “SLABS” – student-loan asset backed securities. We’ve seen this movie before – the one where big banks mass-market loans to a population with stagnated wages and dwindling economic prospects, then bundle them and sell them to investors who haven’t reviewed the way they were underwritten and sold.

SLABS for Wall Street investors are a big red flag waving in our faces. And when they jack up the interest and cut the grants while increasing the salaries of college presidents, it’s neoliberalism and it’s not going to end well for the American people.

As neoliberals find it reasonable to cut food money from hungry people – which is what they are doing now, how long will it be before they refuse tuition loans to anyone who might be a financial risk? This brand of corporate interference is what has happened to healthcare, the Post Office, the prison system – and everything else their blood funnels have jammed into … and it’s a long list. It always starts with “breaking” something they want to take from the public good to be controlled by corporate players for maximum profit.

While America still has the finest educators in the world, why aren’t we listening to their advice about the needed changes for our education system? This opinion by Chris Hedges from last year is the best answer I’ve found to that question. Please read it. Our teachers have earned and deserve America’s wholehearted protection in the fight for better education, last week, next week, every week … they simply are not the culprits.

Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System

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Off topic, here, but to drive the point home, consider another recent and shocking example of planned privatization. Last year, the Chief Economist at Citigroup, Willem Buiter, announced a similar neoliberal vision for our drinking water!

“I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years. Once the spot markets for water are integrated, futures markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments—puts, calls, swaps—both exchange-traded and OTC will follow. There will be different grades and types of fresh water, just the way we have light sweet and heavy sour crude oil today. Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.”

Chris Saladino: “This only has the worst possible outcomes. The attempts at water privatization have so far created far more problems than solutions and in most cases have actually failed. To make it worse, this kind of corporate intervention in yet another essential component of human survival has been just as unfairly dominated as food, health care, and energy.

The Cochabamba riots in Bolivia are a telling and frightening case study. The police actually arrested people for illegally collecting rain water. It’s just a bit too much like the fear of Jack T. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove…”
Water Privatization Case Study:
Cochabamba, Bolivia (pdf)

We thank our new APV member, Chris Saladino, Professor of International Studies at VCU, for commenting on the privatization of fresh water and look forward to more of his contributions in the future!
DCKennedy

Just like Rape

If we could get a breed of gals that didn’t care, now, for their young uns…would be ’bout the greatest mod’rn improvement I knows on … ~Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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The Nation’s Reproductive Rights and the Long Hand of Slave Breeding, by JoAnn Wypijewski, takes a step back to look at the big picture of “choice” in the U.S and how it applies to the conservative war on women.

Wypijewski speaks of her sister’s upcoming book, and her new-found reasoning that includes the propagation of slaves as an important consideration in the legislation we’re facing, and the equal rights of women in general. She finds there “is another logic, and it calls us to complete the unfinished business of emancipation.”

I like the article, but find it falls short by not including some of the other proposed legislation that adds reason to the madness. Those would include the push to end labor unions, repeal our child labor laws, and Virginia’s new law, for example, that allows discrimination against adoption on the basis of any moral reason a contractor puts forth to keep children’s rights under state control.

If all the outsourced jobs and industry return to American soil only after we’ve achieved a “competitive” edge – and they will – what does that mean? It means cheap labor, and lots of it. It means that the organization of workers will have been rendered futile. It means our corporations can compete with China’s standards of employment. It means child labor, something we put behind us long ago.

The concerted stages of deregulation for corporate profit over the people’s safety and workers’ rights in our country are all frightening to me. I think a large voting bloc is being used to promote corporate interests.

Abortion isn’t the issue we’re dealing with in the war on women. I think it’s about control … just like rape.
DCKennedy

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Defusing the Bomb in Obamacare


I remember reading this Forbes article in December 2011:

The Bomb Buried In Obamacare Explodes Today – Hallelujah!

Personally, I’m a single-payer gal and look forward to a universal plan for Americans, but the article sounded like exciting good news for the Affordable Care Act. At the same time, I wondered how long it would take for “the medical loss ratio rule” to be attacked. It didn’t take long.

The Medical Loss Ratio Rule:
The MLR rule provides unprecedented accountability of health insurance companies. It will provide protection and value to approximately 74.8 million insured Americans. Estimates from last year indicate that, starting in 2012, up to 9 million Americans could receive rebates worth from $0.6 to $1.4 billion. However, the existence of the MLR requirement may have improved the pricing patterns of plans; some reports indicate that premium increases were tempered by the prospect of having to pay rebates.  The rule, unchanged from the earlier publication, also allows insurers to include payments recovered through fraud reduction efforts in their calculation of incurred claims (up to the amount of fraudulent claims recovered), thereby encouraging plans to fight fraud. The final rule streamlines reporting and rebate requirements, and reduces the administrative burden on issuers and employers, while continuing to ensure that consumers receive maximum value for their health care dollar.

Also, consumers don’t have to pay taxes on the rebates they get from insurance companies that violate the spending rules. It’s free money.

ProPublica has been following this issue. In Senate Bill Could Roll Back Consumers’ Health Insurance Savings, it looks like the bills designed to render the rule ineffective are well under way and worth a call or visit to your representatives.

“Insurance companies have supported the two bills, claiming that the rebate rule, as it stands now, stifles jobs and actually drives up insurance premiums.”

However, a “2011 government report found that most insurance companies were, in fact, lowering their premiums to meet the requirements, as the administration had hoped.”

The bills are:

  • S. 2068: Access to Independent Health Insurance Advisors Act of 2012 (Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Ben Nelson, D-Neb.)
  • H.R. 1206: Access to Professional Health Insurance Advisors Act of 2011 (Rep. Mike Rogers, 6th term Republican from Michigan 8th District)

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As usual, the corporations want to socialize their overhead and have the people pay the commissions they owe to agents and brokers – clearly an administrative cost of doing business. The MLR doesn’t threaten anybody or anything other than fraudulent business practices and the drive to maximize industry profits. It’s a regulation that protects the people and provides that only a reasonable amount of our premiums will be spent on non-medical related administrative costs like advertising.

Here’s how these insurer-supported bills are being framed and pushed by our “servants” on both sides of the aisle to accommodate their corporate buddies:

Landrieu, Isakson Introduce Bill to Protect Small Insurance Agents, Consumers
This legislation addresses a provision of the Affordable Care Act known as the medical loss ratio (MLR) that has had dramatic, unintended consequences for nearly a half million licensed independent agents and brokers, and their employees. Due to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) interpretation of the MLR provisions in the health reform law, health insurance carriers are required to treat agent and broker commissions as part of their administrative costs. This threatens the ability of independent agents and brokers to stay in business and serve the public.

It does nothing of the sort! The MLR rule merely places the burden of paying these commissions and other administrative costs on the insurance companies rather than the people, and it may be our best hope for adequate control over cost shifting and other typical abuses.

These bills are designed to chip away at the only thing that slipped passed the industry lobbyists who helped write the Affordable Care Act. If the bills go through, the bomb in Obamacare will be a big bang for corporate profits and those wonderful bonuses that their CEO’s manage to wrangle up every year.

Funneling the people’s money up to the top is what neoliberals are good at, and it’s exactly what they’re doing, here.

Paul Krugman has more on the lies being spread by our “servants” about the Affordable Care Act: Hurray for Health Reform
“For now, however, most of the disinformation involves claims about costs. Each new report from the Congressional Budget Office is touted as proof that the true cost of Obamacare is exploding, even when — as was the case with the latest report — the document says on its very first page that projected costs have actually fallen slightly. Nor are we talking about random pundits making these false claims. We are, instead, talking about people like the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, who issued a completely fraudulent press release after the latest budget office report.”

DCKennedy

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Dying for Work

Worker safety comes before corporate profit only when politicians and business alike understand the advantage to being “on the side of the angels“.

Once learned and understood, we’re supposed to have safe working conditions for good reason. This morning, in Dying for Work, Leo Gerard, International President, United Steelworkers, brings back to the surface something we know, or should know, in the light of new-found accountability under corporate personhood.

If corporations are people, as Mitt Romney and the Republican majority on the Supreme Court claim, then their privileges as humans come with the responsibility to act humanely. Corporate-people must fulfill their obligations to workers and communities. Profit can’t be their sole raison d’etre. That’s not how it is with flesh-and-blood people. If it were, then society would condone profit-motivated murder, like killing a parent for insurance money. Now that they’re people, corporations have an even greater duty to prevent deaths on the job. And if they don’t, they must be held accountable in criminal court the same way a money-grubbing son would be if he murdered his parents for the life insurance

The legacy of those who died on March 25, 1911 should be honored, but unless enforcement effectively deters profit-driven corporate offenders, it’s meaningless.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – Impact
DCKennedy