No Privacy for You 6/12/13

A Bad Month for Privacy Rights

By Laura L. Finley

Laura Finley

Laura Finley

Justice Louis Brandeis once called the right to privacy “the right most valued by civilized men.”  Sadly, it has become increasingly clear that, despite pronunciations about “change” and “transparency,” the Obama administration is continuing down the path so dangerously started by former President George W. Bush.

First, the Supreme Court decided that it is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment if police collect DNA from people who have merely been arrested, not convicted, of a crime. Although the Court specified that this practice, already occurring in more than half of the states, should only be done to those who are arrested for “serious” crimes, no definition of what constitutes a serious crime was provided. I wonder whether we should begin preparing ourselves simply to open our mouths whenever a police officer approaches. Whether you are rightly or wrongly arrested, your DNA from that cheek swab will go into the database and, as far as we know, remain there in perpetuity.

While defenders maintain that the practice will help exonerate innocent persons, the risks are huge. Ultimately, the power goes to police, a scary kind of power in the hands of those who do not always use it fairly. In January, President Obama signed into law the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act, which creates grants to help states pay for the expanded DNA databases, and thus we can expect that more will indeed do so. Once again, we have put our faith in a technology at the expense of civil liberties.  Further, DNA evidence is only as good as the people collecting, maintaining and analyzing it.

Then, the Guardian broke the story that the FBI has been granted the power to obtain from Verizon information from all calls made within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries from April 25 and July 19 of this year. Supposedly a tool to keep us safe from terrorism, the authorization for this type of spying on citizens who have done absolutely nothing was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court through the USA Patriot Act’s “business records” provision.  While actual conversations are not covered, details including the phone numbers, location, duration, time and other identifiers about the callers are included in the order. Verizon has close to 100 million customers. We also have no way of knowing whether the NSA or FBI has sought similar orders of other phone companies, as all are prohibited from disclosing.

Just days later, the Guardian revealed that the NSA has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants. Under a program called PRISM, the NSA collects our search histories, the content of our emails, file transfers, live chats and more.

These types of blanket surveillance are not only an invasion of privacy but also ineffective to do what the government claims. Someone has to analyze the tremendous amount of data collected from these records, the vast majority of which will be completely innocuous. Not a smart use of resources, I would argue.

Clearly, poet John Perry Barlow had it right: “Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping tom to install your window blinds.”  Those interested in a more peaceful and just world must become even more vocal advocates for privacy, what Justice William O. Douglas called “the beginning of all freedom.”

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

 

Welfare or Education? 6/12/13

Corporate Welfare or Education?  America’s Public University System

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence S. Wittner

Should a public university be transformed into a corporate welfare project?  That’s the key question surrounding “Tax-Free NY,” a new plan zealously promoted by New York State’s Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo, with nation-wide implications.

Under the provisions of his Tax-Free NY scheme, most of the 64 campuses of the State University of New York (SUNY), some private colleges, and zones adjacent to SUNY campuses would be thrown open to private businesses that would be exempted from state taxes on sales, property, the income of their owners, and the income of their employees for a period of 10 years.  According to the governor, this creation of tax-free havens for private, profit-making companies is designed to create economic development and jobs, especially in upstate New York.

Joined by businessmen, politicians, and top SUNY administrators, Cuomo has embarked on a full court press for his plan.  Tax-Free NY, he announced, was “a game-changing initiative that will transform SUNY campuses and university communities across the state.”  Conceding that these tax-free zones wouldn’t work without a dramatic “culture shift” in the SUNY system, Cuomo argued that faculty would have to “get interested and participate in entrepreneurial activities.”  As he declared in mid-May, the situation was “delicate, because academics are academics. . . .  But you can be a great academic and you can be entrepreneurial, and I would argue you’d be a better academic if you were actually entrepreneurial.”

In fact, the commercialization of American college and university life has been advancing steadily in recent years.  Thousands of U.S. students are paid by businesses to market products on their campuses, large numbers of university presidents serve on one or more corporate boards, administrators sport new titles such as Kmart Chair of Marketing and BankAmerica Dean, and for-profit universities now dot the American landscape.  Indeed, some universities run their own industrial parks, venture capital funds, and joint business-university research centers.

Even so, Tax-Free NY appears to be an important milestone in the corporatization of higher education, for SUNY is the nation’s largest public university system.  Only a few years ago, New York State law prohibited businesses from operating on SUNY campuses.  But that barrier has been swept away, and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher is now a leading cheerleader for Tax-Free NY.

SUNY’s faculty and staff, on the other hand, have a greater stake in preserving the university’s traditional role of education and the advancement of knowledge.  United University Professions (UUP), the union that represents 35,000 faculty and other professional staff on SUNY campuses, has been disturbed for years by the state government’s abandonment of its legal commitment to fund public higher education.  Over a four-year period, SUNY lost nearly $700 million in state support through budget cuts, and state funding has remained flat over the past year.  Today, nearly 75 percent of the university’s operating budget comes from ever-rising tuition and fees.  A decade ago, the state covered 75 percent of SUNY’s budget.

Naturally, then, UUP has promised to fight against this latest assault on the university. Rejecting Tax-Free NY, it argues that any available space on SUNY’s campuses should be dedicated to improving education through smaller class size and improved student services, that there are no assurances that business entities would support the academic mission of campuses, and that the tax-cutting plan would diminish tax revenues that could be used for public education.

Also, there is considerable doubt that Tax-Free NY will spur economic growth.  The Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed group, has reported that New York State already spends about $7 billion annually to foster economic development without any evidence that this funding has been productive.  The Alliance for a Greater New York, a group with a liberal orientation, has noted that, in the past year, the state gave away $490 million to businesses for projects through its Industrial Development Agencies.  Of these projects, half failed to create any jobs and another quarter lost a total of 17,000 jobs.  Criticizing Tax-Free NY,Crain’s New York Business, a leading commercial publication, stated that “history tells us these kinds of strategies don’t work.”  During the administration of Republican George Pataki, “the state created Empire Zones . . . with special tax breaks and incentives. . . .  No area ever showed any real economic gains.  They were eventually phased out when it became clear they had achieved virtually nothing.”  In addition, these economic development programs were riddled with abuse and fraud by unscrupulous companies.

As a result, significant criticism of the governor’s plan has begun to emerge.  The small Conservative Party — a key ally of the Republican Party — formally denounced Tax-Free NY, arguing that “government should not be deciding what businesses receive government handouts that give them advantages over other businesses.”  Journalists asked the governor what would stop the favored companies from simply packing up and leaving after their decade of tax breaks.  According to the president of the Civil Service Employees Association: “The governor doesn’t get the fact that more corporate welfare is no answer to New York’s economic challenges.”

Why, then, despite the obvious limitations of Tax-Free NY, is the governor promoting it so vigorously?  One reason, some observers contend, is that Cuomo is a very ambitious man, with his eyes on a run for the White House.  Determined to win re-election by a huge margin, he needs to strengthen his sagging appeal in upstate New York to do so.  In addition, Cuomo has been closely allied with the state’s corporate leaders, who have poured millions of dollars into promoting his pro-business agenda.  Championing tax cuts to business helps cement this alliance.

Ironically, it’s quite possible that the governor could spur economic growth and job creation if he just reversed his proposal.  Instead of throwing more tax dollars at profit-making businesses while starving public education, he could channel that same money into the SUNY system.  In this fashion, he would help build the kind of university that, through its intellectual excellence, would foster advanced scientific experimentation, economic innovation, and a highly-educated workforce.  But that’s not at all his plan. Corporations, politicians, and educators across the country are watching closely.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and writes for PeaceVoice.  His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” – a satire on the corporatization of higher education.]

 

A Little Leak 6/12/13

More leaks in the faulty national security debate – and how to fix them

By Patrick T. Hiller

Patrick T. Hiller

Patrick T. Hiller

A little leak can be quickly fixed by stuffing it or wrapping it. Large leaks, however, often require more structural repairs or completely different solutions. Bradley Manning’s and just days ago Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified information demonstrates just how big our structural repairs need to be. What they exposed are further indicators of the faulty framework of the national security debate. In other words, a poorly designed security construct is collapsing. We discuss the acts of those individuals on a sliding scale from “nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize” to “try them for treason” – I opt for the first. Distracted by character debate, however, we are missing opportunities to engage in more meaningful discussions about the faulty structures they exposed.

We are operating out of the perpetual fear that evil is out there to eradicate the United States of America. The government’s guiding foreign policy principle is to keep the American people safe (http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/foreign-policy), and in doing so the military and intelligence agencies are overstepping legal and ethical boundaries in an outdated understanding of security. While very few would argue against the need of security – in fact it is a shared basic human need for everyone – we are constantly missing opportunities as a nation to re-define security.

Security, particularly national security, unfortunately is defined in relation to military power and its global projection. A fact worth repeating is that we are spending as much as the world’s next 15 countries on our defense (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). It is too much and it does not serve our national defense. Our country is not under attack. There is no clash of civilizations or a battle between American freedom versus the perceived darkness of an Islamist world.

For the sake of having the security discussion let us look at the war on terror and the perpetual terrorist threats which led us into two real wars and are driving the current security conversations. The most recent leak of confidential governmental information was that of Edward Snowden, a computer analyst working for the private government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. He revealed the existence of PRISM, a clandestine electronic American national security surveillance program designed to identify terrorists. More than that, PRISM appears to be highly invasive of the privacy of all citizens in an unprecedented collection of data, the full extent yet to be revealed. Instead of resorting to science fiction surveillance tactics out of George Orwell’s novel 1984 through PRISM and “pre-crime” enforcements tactics out of Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report through drone strikes, we have an opportunity to resort to real science in our responses to terrorism. The bottom line is that we now understand patterns and dynamics of violence and ways of constructive conflict transformation. And quite frankly, the strategies and tactics employed by our government are not constructive pathways toward eliminating terrorism.

Scientists studying the causes and consequences of war offer multiple nonviolent responses to terrorism which are part of an evolving global system of peace. Effective nonviolence, international adjudication, conflict resolution, peace education, indigenous rights, smart sanctions, non-governmental organizations and effective humanitarian work, peaceful interpretation of religious scriptures or human rights are just a few real trends accompanied by proven approaches to move them forward. John Paul Lederach, a pioneer in the peace and conflict studies field who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, suggests that nonviolent responses to terrorism should be based on engagement rather than isolation – particularly of civil society. Those strategies allow for solutions over the mid-term and long-term which are more likely to address the root causes of the grievances. Imagine the new horizons that would open up.

A talented computer analyst like Edward Snowden would not need to fear for his future and life for acting out of his conscience and could be put to work on creating sophisticated early warning violence prevention networks. Our aeronautical engineers could design, manufacture and program drones for tornado warnings, disaster relief or atmospheric research. Then we don’t need to have discussions about the perpetual war on terror, drone strikes, Guantanamo Bay, or the manufactured fear of an established Islamist state. Then we are indeed strengthening an evolving global peace system, which is not based on utopian thinking but based on numerous trends of constructive conflict transformation, social change and global collaboration.

As to security, we can re-define security as a more positive role for the United States in the world rather than constantly preparing for war and going to war in the name of freedom. That is not only patriotic and demonstrates love for our country, it addresses the human need for security of all.

Patrick. T. Hiller, Ph.D., Hood River, OR, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Conflict Transformation scholar, professor and Director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation.

IRS HOAX 6/5/13

IRS ‘Scandal’ is a Hoax

By William Boardman

Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game Straight?

Almost everything you hear and read in the media about the current IRS “scandal” is based on deliberate falsification of basic facts.  Some might call it lying.

Here’s a reasonably typical media-framing of the IRS lie, from the usually careful and accurate Economist, posted May 23:  “Even before this month’s revelation that conservative political groups applying for 501(c)(4) status were being singled out for special scrutiny….” 

You see this false framing of the IRS story across the media spectrum, from Info wars to ABC News and NBC News to the Economist to DemocracyNOW! (The latter on May 24:  “the scandal over the targeted vetting of right-wing groups…).    Even the usually reliable Wonkblog at the Washington Post doesn’t get the story right, apparently because it hasn’t read the relevant law.

An exception to this remarkable mental stampede in the wrong direction was Jeffrey Toobin (New Yorker, May 14) who wondered, “Did the I.R.S. actually do anything wrong?”  His answer started to put the story in reasonable perspective, with a focus on tax law and political money:  “…the scandal isn’t what’s illegal—it’s what’s legal. It’s what society chooses not to punish that tells us most about the prevailing ethical standards of the time.”

Anatomy of a False Narrative – Lying, Laziness, Partisanship, What? 

How is it that the conventional framing is dishonest?  Here are some of the ways:

1.     It wasn’t a revelation.  All kinds of people were aware of the underlying problem, that 501(c)(4) tax status abuse had been going on since 1959, and that it took a quantum leap after 2011, when the Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision opened the democratic process to money flooding that would be facilitated by the secrecy offered by the 501(c )(4) status.

2.     There were bi-partisan public hearings on the problem scheduled by the Senate well before the “scandal” broke.   Anyone could look it up.

3.     As soon as the story broke, Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC The Last Word) was reporting accurately on the issue, rooted in the difference between a law that says 501(c)(4) organizations should be “exclusively” for social welfare and a 1959 IRS regulation that says, with Orwellian authority, that “exclusively” is to be interpreted to mean “primarily.”   Too many reporters and others still do not get this, even though responsible research begins with these primary sources.

4.    No one was singled out.   That’s right, no one was singled out.  The problem with 501(c)(4) applications is that the IRS must review every one to see if the applicant qualifies for tax-exempt status.  Given the flood of applications from political groups of all sorts post-Citizens United, the IRS needed some way to make sure those applications were “primarily” for social welfare, even though political insiders knew that had been a joke for years (Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and MoveOn.org are both IRS-approved 501(c)(4) organizations, of which there are thousands – reportedly 97,382 in 2011).

5.     There is no reason within the law that any political organization should get a tax subsidy from American taxpayers.  That is allowable only under the IRS regulations put in place in 1959 under the Eisenhower administration.  And the Congress could fix this virtually overnight by restoring “primarily” to its original meaning in the law, “exclusively.”  Perhaps, the real scandal, and a bi-partisan one at that, is that that’s not what’s happening.

6.     No one was singled out.  The IRS at some level (that eventually included Lois Lerner) made a remarkably stupid, tone deaf, inept effort to identify applications that were more likely than others to be primarily political.   Looking for applications tagged “tea party” may have reflected the reality of an inordinate number of such applications, but it was really dumb.  Using the tag “party” not only would have done the job, but would have been wholly defensible, since no political party is eligible for public tax subsidy and secrecy for its donors.

7.     No one was singled out.  The IRS net for possibly political organizations caught some 300 applications.  Of these, no more than a third were “conservative” or “tea party” or “right-wing.”  The rest were something else, including “liberal” and “left-wing.”  None of the so-called conservative group applications were denied.  Some were delayed, deservedly so, but a group can function as a 501(c)(4) with an application pending, so it’s hard to see how much damage a delay would do, if any.

8.     At least some of the groups on the right were clearly partisan and perhaps broke the law.   The New York Times of May 26 reports in a story wrongly headlined “Groups Targeted by I.R.S. Tested Rules on Politics” describes several tax exempt groups that spent money on partisan activities.

9.     One of the groups, Emerge America, was granted 501(c)(4) status in 2006 in order to train women to run for elected office.  In 2012, when an IRS review showed that Emerge America was training only Democratic candidates, the IRS revoked the group’s tax-exempt status.

10. Another group calling itself “CVFC 501(c)(4)” on its application in 2010 gave its address as the same as “Combat Veterans for Congress PAC” (political action committee).   Perhaps PAC triggered a closer look.  While awaiting an IRS decision, CVFC spent almost $8,000 on radio ads for a Republican candidate.  CVFC omitted this expenditure from its 2010 tax return.  On a questionnaire asking if it had engaged directly or indirectly in political activity on behalf of a candidate, CVFC checked “NO.”

NBC News Reporting Achieves Incompetence and Partisanship 

In a report on May 29, “Open Channel Investigative reporting from NBC News” (bylined Lisa Myers, Rich Gardella, Talesha Reynolds) starts with a flat-out false headline: “IRS higher-ups requested info on conservative groups, letters show.”

The story begins:  “Additional scrutiny of conservative organizations’ activities by the IRS did not solely originate in the agency’s Cincinnati office, with requests for information coming from other offices and often bearing the signatures of higher-ups at the agency….”

The letters don’t show that.  NBC provides two letters, and both come from and direct responses to the IRS Cincinnati office, although one letter also has an apparently hand-stamp signature for “Lois Lerner, Director, Exempt Organizations” and no address other than Cincinnati.  The letters comprise nine pages, of which five pages are form letters.  Each of the applicants also received a personal, two-page request for additional information to justify tax-exempt status.

The IRS asked Ohio Liberty Council Group in March 2012 to update a two year old filing, and to describe its planned activities, public events, membership recruitment, political activity, and lobbying – if any.

The IRS asked Linchpins of Liberty if they had adopted bylaws or chosen a board of directors. The IRS also wanted to know, among other things, about the organizations income and expenses, its loan agreements and other contracts, and whether its activities wound go beyond selling a book (“Linchpins of Liberty”) written by its president.   NBC fails to note that this isn’t a response to a relevant 501(c)(4) application, but the IRS answer on May 6 to an application for the more stringent 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

If You Hate Government, Do You Hate It More When It Does Due Diligence?  

Nothing in these two letters suggests anything more than due diligence by the IRS in protecting public policy and assets.   The information in the story came to NBC mostly from attorneys representing the complaining groups.   NBC provides no reliable, independent support for the opinions of its biased sources, even though it reports those opinions as more or less fact.

The IRS story went off the tracks of fact the moment Lois Lerner planted a question with a reporter at an American Bar Association conference on May 10.  In answer to the reporter’s posing of Lerner’s question, Lerner answered this way, as reported by Associated Press (no transcript appears to be available):

“The Internal Revenue Service apologized Friday for what it acknowledged was ‘inappropriate’ targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status.

“IRS agents singled out dozens of organizations for additional reviews because they included the words ‘tea party’ or ‘patriot’ in their exemption applications, said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups. In some cases, groups were asked for lists of donors, which violates IRS policy in most cases, she said.”

For whatever reason, the AP makes the IRS apology institutional even though it comes from a mid-level IRS manager ratting out people she was supposed to be managing.  The news catches her superiors in the IRS, as well as the White House, completely off guard.    It also sets off a right-wing feeding frenzy, which the AP reports at length in the same story

Somebody Needs to Give This Story a Little Perspective and Proportion

Only near the end of the story, in a clumsily written paragraph, does the AP reporter touch on the factual context for the news Lerner was breaking and in which she had been a central player:

“In all, about 300 groups were singled out for additional review, Lerner said. Of those, about a quarter were singled out because they had ‘tea party’ or ‘patriot’ somewhere in their applications.”

In other words, about 225 applications were not “political conservative groups, as AP had reported at the top of the story, and for which it has yet to issue a correction or an apology.   

Given her unusual behavior over the past few years, it doesn’t seem all that strange that Lois Lerner has refused to answer questions in Congress, pleading the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, while refusing to resign from her $180,000-a-year job (she’s now on administrative leave).

What seems much stranger, but not as surprising as it should, is that so much of the media goes on reporting as fact the partisan political version of a story that never happened.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

This article was published at NationofChange at:http://www.nationofchange.org/irs-scandal-hoax-1370271415. All rights are reserved.

Bridge Into Troubled Waters 5/29/13

Bridge into Troubled Waters

By Tom H. Hastings

Tom Hastings

Tom Hastings

Tonight another US freeway bridge collapsed over another river, plunging cars and the people in them into the cold rushing water below. This time it is I-5, just north of Seattle, into the Skagit river. At this writing, just an hour after the disaster, there is no announced death nor injury toll.

Last time this happened was in Minnesota, 1 August 2007, on I-35, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Federal officials complained about lack of funds for bridge inspection and repair. Really?

When, if ever, will we begin to take our infrastructure decay seriously in the US? When will we put men and women to work creating and maintaining, constructing and repairing, instead of destroying and wasting in war? Since 2001, the US taxpayer has poured $1.44 trillion into war, every cent of which could have created honest creative, sustainable, helpful, strengthening work here in the US, creating many more jobs than does the military and all their contractors. Trying to be the strongest country in the world has greatly weakened the US and the pieces of our workings which are falling apart are simply the first warnings.

Indeed, the economists at the University of Massachusetts in Amhearst have studied how many jobs are created per $billion spent and the military is the worst investment. It creates the fewest.

Meanwhile, engineers give our infrastructure a D+ (an F for some bridges, obviously) and tell us (on Fox News, no less) it will take an investment of $3.6 trillion by 2020 to get us safe and operating for the public good.

As soon as the sequester hit, most of the complaining came from the Pentagon, with sob stories about how unready America now already is as a result. Seriously? The Pentagon has all the money. They have had all the money for years, under both Ds and Rs. And we see the catastrophic results.

Schools closing. Pensions vanishing. Funds for regular hardworking people or for some who are disabled or otherwise down on their luck all gone. Far fewer advantages for our children; school boards are desperately wrestling with budget cuts from coast-to-coast. And now, even our bridges are falling into rivers. It’s tragic, it’s embarrassing, and only source of power will change this, if anyone can, and that is our regular folks, getting involved.

Civil society will fix this because civil society, in its enlightened self-interest, will stop electing politicians who allow this sort of corrupt militarism to take the lives of our young people, steal directly from the educational system, and erode our mass transit and roadway system. We will finally tell our elites, “Fix it or you will no longer own what you think you own. We will take it back.”

The Gini Coefficient tracks the income disparities between the elites and the rest of us. The higher the Gini Coefficient, the worse the gap. It is now highest in the US since it started being measured in 1967. It is worst in the District of Columbia, where the elites generally reside and where low-paid federal workers do too. The elites there who vote seem comfortable with this system because it benefits them. It does not benefit the rest of us and we are running out of patience.

When our bridges cannot even stand up it is time for the rest of us to stand up. We are due for some massive nonviolent change in our country because we face a massive set of problems and a massive military industrial complex that benefits the very few at the expense of the rest of us. Bridges falling into the rivers? OK, they are getting our attention. Once they have our attention like this and we get organized to change spending priorities, we will have their attention.

Dr. Tom H. Hastings directs PeaceVoice.

The Silver Lining 5/29/13

The Silver Lining

by Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

Winslow Myers

If the brutal and tragic agony of Syria today has one small glimmer of hope, it is that the great powers are completely stymied, blocked, paralyzed in their ability to resolve anything by military action. Were this 1914 and had we possessed nuclear weapons, the Syrian situation might have led to a war that ended the world.

But now we can see the old realpolitik tactics, supplying arms to the son-of-a-bitch that we thought of as at least our son-of-a-bitch, which never really worked anyway, completely revealed in all their emptiness. So why is this a silver lining?

Let us not oversell. The complete inability of tribes and religious rivals to resolve their conflicts in Syria hardly bodes a future without war. History has not ended.  Potentially there are terrible conflicts ahead, especially over scarce resources like water and arable land.

But there is a possibility that the great powers, first of all the United States, can begin to play a different, more constructive, role—a role of war prevention.  To do that, we must begin from where we are, where we are as a planet, and reconceive our national interest. Along with everyone else’s, our national interest is utterly connected to and dependent upon such non-military realities as that fish stocks in the ocean are close to exhaustion, or that the carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere has now surpassed 400 parts per million, or that global population is expected to continue to rise to between 11 and 17 billion people before it levels off. These are not problems with military solutions.

In this context, the cost of the American-led wars of the past ten years, based in a gross overreaction to terrorism combined with the misconception that terrorism could be eliminated solely by military means and a pure greed for control over oil, has been a colossal lost opportunity for the U.S. Instead we could have invested much more in making the challenging transition beyond fossil fuels, or strengthening the food infrastructure worldwide. Imagine having taken the cost of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and spending it instead on decentralized solar and wind energy, medical help, and education to people in the developing world. It is at least an even bet that this would have been a more robust preventer of terrorism.

Looming behind our thinking about conventional military force is the issue of nuclear war. Here again the amount of money spent for zero increase in real security is appalling, and the emptiness in the rhetoric of national leaders thunderously hollow. With the advent of the computer modeling of nuclear winter back in the 1980s—that only a small percentage of nuclear weapons detonated could cause worldwide climate change, massively shutting down agricultural systems—the whole theory of nuclear deterrence collapsed into dust. A remaining issue is the possibility of a terrorist entity acquiring a nuclear weapon. The only solution to that is to budget not for building or renewing weapons, but to forge treaties to reciprocally bring down the numbers of weapons possessed by the nuclear powers—and to secure existing nuclear materials. This includes pushing for the entire Middle East region as a nuclear-free zone. The alternative is mass extinction, which will include the United States.

The recent disciplining of a group of U.S. military personnel in charge of nuclear ICBMs who had become unacceptably careless with the strict protocols around these weapons underscores the reality that the danger lies as much in the weapons themselves in combination with human frailty as it does with who possesses them. The U.S. and Israel threaten Iran if it crosses a red line, but our double standard, along with the universal bad combination of fallible people and a world-destructive energy, is there for all to see. It is a kind of miracle that disaster has not happened—so far.

On the nuclear level, the obsolescence of war has long been crystal-clear, though world leaders continue to pretend otherwise. The situation in Syria provides an instructive example of that same obsolescence on the conventional level.  It allows any policy-maker who possesses some genuine compassion for the children there, for everyone there, to say: we cannot help by selling arms to any one party, because we don’t know into whose hands they will fall. We cannot help by invading.  All war is civil war and all civil war has a crossborder threat. All war is obsolete for meeting our real challenges as a human family. Therefore the first step, the best step, even if it is only a humble beginning, is to ponder: what else could we do that might be creative and helpful?

Winslow Myers, the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” writes on global issues, serves on the advisory board of the War Prevention Initiative, and writes for PeaceVoice.

 

Planetary Emergency 5/29/13

Planetary Emergency Ahead 

By Kent D. Shifferd

Kent D. Shifferd

Kent D. Shifferd

We humans are facing a perfect storm of crises of our own making that could bring a sudden and ugly end to the way of life we have known, but we are not paying attention.

We are all focused on small things—our jobs, the fate of our favorite sports team, the price of gas, the latest clothing fad, the newest app for our smartphone.  For most of us our view is too limited, too narrow and too confined to the present moment. We are looking down at our feet when we should be looking up and outward to the future. We are happily oblivious to the one big thing that will determine our fate. Without realizing it, we stand on the brink of a planetary emergency brought on by our pride and our ignorance.

We are facing a species extinction crisis on a scale not seen in millions of years; a sudden and unprecedented population explosion; the creation and spread of thousands of toxic chemicals and radioactive materials for which we have no biological protection; a dramatic shift in climate—for the worse; the degrading of agricultural land world-wide; the dramatic depletion of ocean fisheries, and the rise of environmentally induced diseases.  Describing each one of these crises could take a whole book. Each exacerbates all the others.  We also stand on the brink of radically meddling with the basic genetic structure of life.  These crises should be the main focus of education, the media and the government, but instead we go on frittering about with details as if nothing earth-shaking had changed.

The cause of this perfect storm is our pride and our ignorance.  We think we know how to control nature to create an overstocked material paradise.  In fact, nature is far more complex than we can imagine and our efforts so far are not encouraging.  We have made several huge mistakes in the past 150 years, thinking they were “Progress.”  They are: first, the exploitation of fossil fuels, especially coal-fired power plants and millions of automobiles that are bringing on the massive web of changes–fire, flood, storms, drought, extinctions–that we call climate shift.  Second, we learned to split the atom, leading to thermonuclear weapons that could destroy the world in an afternoon, and nuclear power plants that will leave poisons around for tens of thousands of years just so we can turn on a light bulb. Third, we created 85,000 new chemical substances, almost wholly untested for human health impacts, and spread them about in almost every commercial product we use, from fabric softeners to the lining of food cans.  Fourth, we have allowed our population to go from a billion in 1800, a sum that took all of human history to achieve, to seven billion today and nine billion projected by 2050.  So many people eating up so much habitat that we have triggered a massive extinction process.  Our grandchildren will live on a planet with no lions or polar bears, but much more importantly, the very base of the biological pyramid, the plant kingdom, is being radically depleted of species.  And it’s not only population growth that is at fault, it’s our unsupportable belief in unending economic growth.  If everyone alive today lived at the American standard of material consumption we would need at least four planets. How will we cope with two billion more people? We are overspending our natural capital and degrading the ecological base on which civilization rests.  Too many people with too much power and too many toxic things.

Even people who foresee this disaster in the making think we can manage it by geo-engineering and genetically modifying plants and animals.  They think we can act as if we were gods when we weren’t even able to manage coal to keep it from harming the biosphere.  Instead of ceasing to do the destructive things we are doing, they are sure in their hubris that they can invent fantastic ways that will allow us to do even more.  In all probability they will accelerate and deepen the disaster.

We have not done a very good job of maintaining the health of the planet on which our health and our civilization rest.  We fail at far-sightedness and at seeing each of our man-made changes in the larger context of the biosphere.  We ignore the fact that you can’t do just one thing in nature because so much is connected to so much else.  In short, as a species we lack wisdom and humility and so we imperil ourselves and much of the rest of life.

We can have a good future on this planet but only if we greatly reduce our population, replace our tool kit with one that is non-toxic and less damaging, and consume far, far less and do it soon.  We need to invent a new way of life. The alternative is global ecological collapse.  We are facing a planetary emergency.

Kent Shifferd, Ph.D., (kshifferd@centurytel.net) is an historian who taught environmental history and ethics for 25 years at Wisconsin’s Northland College.  He is author of From War to Peace: A Guide to the Next Hundred Years (McFarland, 2011) and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

 

Nuclear War Respect 5/22/13

Nuclear War Careers Don’t Get Any Respect

John LaForge

John LaForge

 

By John LaForge

        Some of the Air Force’s self-styled nuclear “missileers” — sitting at launch controls in Minot, North Dakota — recently earned a “D” on their intercontinental ballistic missile firing (ICBM) skills. More than 10 percent of the Minot Air Force Base’s 91st “Missile Wing” was declared incompetent and was stripped of launch-duty clearances.

The Air Force removed 17 of Minot’s 150 missile launch officers in April, over what commander Lt. Col. Jay Folds called “such rot” that, according to The AP on May 8, “even the willful violation of safety rules — including a possible compromise of launch codes — was tolerated.”

        Air Force commanders told The AP they were concerned about an “attitude problem” among the ultimate bomb scare command. The Air Forces’ two-person crews work three-day shifts in underground Launch Control Centers and are supposed to be constantly at-the-ready to fire the 10 Minuteman IIIs under their control. Minot AFB is in charge of 150 ICBMs, 15 “flights” of 10 missiles each, with one launch control center for each flight.

        Another 150 are on alert in Wyoming and 150 more out in Montana. All 450 of the relics are armed with a 300 kiloton “W-87” warhead. Three-hundred kilotons is a magnitude equal to 18 times the destruction that incinerated Hiroshima in 1945 killing 140,000 people.

        The Air Force put on its dress uniform in the face of the scandal. In May it announced it would retrain the incompetent nuclear triggermen and the commanders asserted to Congress that its H-bombs were secure.

Gen. Mark Welsh, the service’s top general, told the Washington Post — with deliberate irony one hopes —  that Air Force officers sense that the land-based missile system “is a dying field.” And it’s a fact that everyone from President Obama to the War Resisters League has called for the Bomb’s abolition.

Gen. Welsh admitted to the press that there are “a limited command positions to which missile launch officers can aspire.” Being stuck in dead-ended Air Force careers and posted in the wilderness of central North Dakota, Minot’s Cold War throw-backs — who call themselves “Roughriders” and “Vulgar Vultures” on their website — are trained to fire Minuteman III ballistic missiles at the sea (they can be re-programmed but are targeted on the oceans for “safety”) and, day after wind-swept prairie day, have absolutely no military function or purpose whatsoever.

It’s hardly surprising that their minds drift. Since they’re prepared to commit the bloodiest, most nightmarish crime in human history or imagination, the missileer’s principle pre-occupation must be to think about something else, anything else. Many work on graduate degrees. One launch control center I visited in December 1987 was decorated with Christmas lights.

        The inevitable if not impending elimination of their useless rockets has to depress what’s left of the launch teams’ esprit de corps. Even their civilian commander, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, has signed onto a call by the group Global Zero to eliminate all the ICBMs and to eventually discard all nuclear weapons.

        Of course Minot AFB has been demoralized by more than the nuclear war flunky scandal. In August 2007, three of its Colonels, a Lt. Colonel and dozens of low-level personnel were demoted or sacked after they allowed the fantastically dangerous loading and cross-country air transport of six nuclear-armed Cruise missiles from Minot to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. Even if that astonishing action was covertly orchestrated by Vice President Dick Cheney for an attack on Iran that never materialized, the highly implausible but official cover story of mismanagement, rule breaking and recklessness was an international humiliation for Minot.

        That same year, Cold War super-hawks Sam Nunn, Geo. Shultz, Wm. Perry and H. Kissinger publicly declared their support of a “world free of nuclear weapons.” These life-long nuclear arsenal defenders had finally joined Reagan Administration advisor Paul Nitze and Strategic Air Command leader Gen. Geo. Lee Butler in calling the arsenal worse than useless.

        Even Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. — who last week defended the Pentagon’s usurpation of authority to attack anywhere on Earth for the next 20 years — said about the nuclear arsenal last June, “The more weapons that exist out there, the less secure we are rather than the more secure we are.” (“Senator Urges Bigger Cuts to Nuclear Arsenal,” New York Times, June 15, 2012)

        No wonder the Air Force missileers are lackadaisical about the apocalypse. There’s just no future in it.

John LaForge, syndicated by PeaceVoice, edits the Nukewatch quarterly newsletter.

 

License to Kill 5/22/13

Letting Murderers Go Free

Laura Finley

Laura Finley

By Laura Finley

Breaking News: In Florida, a murderer has made public his plans to kill three individuals in the next six weeks. If all goes according to his plan, Elmer Carroll will die on May 29th, William Van Poyk will die on June 12th, and Marshal Gore will die on June 24th. And what is more, this murderer has admitted that he has killed before; in fact, he killed three people in 2012 alone. Clearly this man is a serial killer who has killed and plans to keep doing so.

If this perpetrator were an average person like us, these highly publicized murder plans would be the subject of mass public outrage and the focus of tremendous law enforcement attention. A manhunt would be under way to catch the “evildoer.” Once apprehended, prosecutors would spare nothing to win the case and see this bloodthirsty felon held accountable for his crimes.

But, of course, the perpetrator is not like us. He is Florida Governor Rick Scott, and he has vowed to deplete Florida’s death row as quickly as possible. He has repeatedly demonstrated that he plans to continue the state’s heinously flawed death penalty system in the coming months and for the indefinite future.  And thus little public outcry, no “manhunt” for this man who will easily murder more people than did the Boston marathon attackers.  Instead, the state continues to make it easy for Rick Scott to kill and kill some more.

Florida is already the only state that allows a jury to assign a death sentence without a unanimous decision. A 7-5 vote can put a man on death row in the Wild West that is Florida’s death penalty. Some 406 inmates sit on that death row awaiting Scott’s decision when to kill them. This is more than any state except California. In the last two years, Florida, under Scott’s leadership, has led the nation in the number of new death sentences.  Florida also leads the nation with the number of death row exonerees, having found 24 people it sent to death row actually did not actually commit the offense for which they were convicted.

Not content with the ease with which Scott gets the go ahead to kill, the Florida legislature recently passed the Timely Justice Act. George Orwell would be so proud, for there is no justice in this Act and time works against justice. Instead, if Scott signs it into law, it will limit appeals for each person who has received a death sentence. It requires the Governor to sign their Death Warrants within 30 days after appeals are exhausted and clemency is denied, and it demands that executions take place within 180 days of the signing of the death warrant. This would impact 13 prisoners currently, and another 80 have exhausted appeals and are awaiting clemency hearings. This legislation will almost certainly lead to the execution of innocent individuals in the state of Florida, as most of the 24 exonerees had been on death row for more than 15 years before they were released.  And, while these innocent men languish in the prison at Starke, the real murderers carry on. And those who were responsible for the flaws—the police who elicit false confessions from mentally ill or low IQ inmates, the prosecutors whose misconduct has been repeatedly deemed egregious—they remain, like Rick Scott, in the free world doing as they please.

Even if Governor Scott does not sign the Timely Justice Act, however, he has vowed to speed up executions in Florida by executing an individual every two weeks. So, while six states in the last six years have abolished the death penalty, Florida wants Rick Scott to keep on killing.

I don’t think this is OK. And I hope others do not, either. If you are outraged that Florida’s serial killer Rick Scott and his legislative toadies are able to distort justice in these ways, take action. Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP), Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., and other groups are pushing Scott to veto the Timely Justice Act and are actively organizing to move Florida in the direction of the other 18 states that now do not kill offenders to teach them the errors of their ways. I implore you to contact Rick Scott and to get involved with FADP’s efforts.  Otherwise, we are simply turning our heads while a murderer remains free to kill again.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

Equal Pay for the Rich 5/22/13

At Universities, Too, the Rich Grow Richer

Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence S. Wittner

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Although many Americans believe their universities are places where administrators and faculty members coexist on a fairly equal basis, the reality is that this is far from the case.

According to recent surveys by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 35 private university presidents and four public university presidents topped $1 million in total earnings during the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Among the public university presidents, Graham Spanier of Pennsylvania State University received $2.9 million for that year, followed by Jay Gogue of Auburn University ($2.5 million), E. Gordon Gee of Ohio State University ($1.9 million), and Alan Merten of George Mason University ($1.9 million). Overall, the presidents of public universities — the poor relations of their private university counterparts — had a median annual total compensation of $441,392.

This very substantial income does not include many additional perks. According to the New York Times, President Gee is known for “the lavish lifestyle his job supports, including a rent-free mansion with an elevator, a pool and a tennis court and flights on private jets.”

Moreover, despite hard times, including pay cuts, for many Americans, university presidents are rapidly increasing their income. President Gogue’s annual earnings soared from $720,000 to $2.5 million in a single year. Between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, the number of public university presidents in the $600,000-$700,000 income range jumped from 13 to 28.

Of course, it might be argued that they “earned” these hefty incomes through superior performance on the job. But is this true?

President Spanier, whose $2.9 million income in 2011-2012 made him the best-paid public university president in the United States, resigned his post in November 2011. His resignation came five days after the arrest of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach, on child sex abuse charges — charges that sparked nationwide outrage over that university’s failure for nearly a decade to alert law enforcement authorities to alleged sexual assault on campus. Spanier was himself charged criminally in an alleged cover-up of Sandusky’s crimes, although he continues to maintain his innocence.

In most cases, however, the bloated incomes of university presidents result from their fundraising prowess. President Gogue, whose $2.5 million compensation placed him second to Spanier, was lauded by Auburn University officials for his close relationship with business leaders. “In basic financial terms,” a university spokeswoman explained, “the return on investment is remarkably high.” Similarly, Hollis Hughes, Jr., the president of Ball State University’s board of trustees, justified the huge income of Jo Ann Gora, the university president — who, at just under $1 million income placed fifth in the financial ranking of public university presidents in 2011-2012 —on the basis of her success at fundraising.

Cultivating corporate and wealthy donors, of course, has long been a major task of university presidents, but it has become an obsession in recent years, especially as state governments have cut back funding for public universities. Over the course of a decade, the nation’s largest public university system, the State University of New York, has gone from a situation in which the state paid 75 percent of the university’s costs and student tuition paid 25 percent to exactly the reverse, in which state support covers 25 percent of costs and student tuition covers most of the remainder. In these circumstances, public universities are desperately seeking to attract financial support from corporations and the wealthy, with obvious consequences when it comes to rewarding the top fundraisers and setting campus priorities.

Meanwhile, faculty members are left out in the cold. Despite the fact that most faculty at public universities have many years of graduate education, doctoral degrees, publications, and years of teaching experience, their average annual salary is just over $80,000 per year. These, of course, are the full-time, “regular” tenured faculty. Part-timers, a talented but cheap labor force who administrators are increasingly substituting for full-timers, are paid, at best, a few thousand dollars per course—usually much less. Thus, even when they shuttle from campus to campus, cobbling together the equivalent of a full course load, they are so impoverished that they qualify for food stamps. These part-timers and other “contingent” faculty — large numbers of low-paid, full-time educators in temporary positions, without job security (but who sometimes teach at the same institution full-time for decades)—today constitute the vast majority of people who teach at American colleges and universities.

Nor do faculty salaries seem likely to rise very much. At the State University of New York, the faculty and other professional staff are now voting on a new, five-year contract with the state that will provide them with a salary raise of about 1 percent a year — a raise that, when inflation is taken into account, will actually give them a salary reduction. Although United University Professions, their faculty/professional staff union that engaged in tough, lengthy contract negotiations with the state, fought until the end for a minimum salary for part-time faculty, state negotiators — loyal to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s hostile approach to public sector workers— adamantly refused to consider it. Consequently, although top administrators can (and will) be paid increasingly outlandish amounts, there will be no salary floor for those who do the teaching and research.

On university campuses, it seems, everyone is equal. But some are much more equal than others.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life. An earlier version of this article was published on huntingtonnews.net.

The Husband Beater 5/8/13

Laura Finley

Laura Finley

Commentary on the “Husband Beater” and Other Disgusting Products

By Laura Finley

Love it or hate it, the U.S. is a free market economy. As such, people can start almost any business they want. While in many ways that is a beautiful thing—it allows for creativity and ingenuity, and it spurs motivated individuals to take risks that may turn into something really exciting and potentially beneficial, not just individually but for society at large– this same free market economy allows people to start businesses that do absolutely no social good and are, in some cases, absolutely despicable. Here I discuss a few of the examples that have made my blood boil. Sadly, they are far from the exception.  Surely others can identify examples of their own that should simply never have gone to market. Not because the government should censor or prohibit them, but rather because no individual should ever dream up such disgusting, inhumane ways of making a profit—and no one should support such poor ideas by buying them.

Walking in my local mall recently, I meandered past a Spencers store. My stomach turned as I saw the white tank top hanging prominently in the store front, proudly depicting “husband beater” on its front. As if it is somehow OK to beat people, in particular the people you are supposed to love. And the racism of that snarky but not really at all clever retort to “wife beaters” is far from subtle. Certainly this is not the only problematic shirt marketed at Spencers. For instance, they have sold another shirt that says “Stop Being Difficult and Take It In the A__.”  A lack of class is the company’s least worry.

Then there’s this little nugget of nastiness: Zombie Industries, a vendor at the recent 2013 National Rifle Association (NRA) convention, not only makes a Barack Obama target for shooting practice but sells a big-breasted “ex-girlfriend” dummy that bleeds when shot. Great. Why not glorify the shooting of former partners? It’s not like we lose as many people to domestic violence every 18 months as we lost in the 9/11 attacks. Oh wait, yes it is. Domestic violence: Not really a comical matter.

The Huffington Post reported in May 2013 this beauty: A birthday card featuring a cartoonish-Hijab-wearing Muslim girl, smiling while she issues the following messages: “She’ll love you to death! ”and “She’ll blow your brains out!” Inside, the card says “Hope your birthday is a blow out!” ” Words cannot describe the damage that is done when this type of messaging reaches the masses, confirming, for many, the notion that every Muslim is a potential terrorist.

Sometimes it is not the company promoting the obnoxious advertisements but rather social media run amok. Dove Cosmetics, for instance, was outraged to find that a Facebook page called “drop-kicking sluts in the teeth” featured Dove cosmetics. Dove complained to Facebook and the page was removed, but the fact that it ever appeared is clearly problematic.

So, what to do? I am a fan of free speech and do not want to get into the business of censorship. But these examples certainly prompt the question: Why? Why do people want to start a business that capitalizes on violence, abuse, racism, bigotry and misogyny? The answer, of course, is that is it profitable. So, how do we decrease that incentive? We? Yes, we, as in, all of us. First and foremost, we stop consuming such products. No need for censorship. No need for anything really challenging at all; we simply buy our stuff from other providers. While that is far from a complete solution, the message will be sent: There is no market for your garbage-product. Create something that is not violent or misogynistic and you will profit. Do so at your own peril.

 I implore readers to be inspired to let these companies know that what they are doing is unacceptable. It is the least we can do to stop the glorification, and therefore support of, violent practices that we profess to abhor. Let them know why you no longer purchase their brand—if enough of us do so, we can help change this culture.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

 
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