Thursday, December 30, 2010
The Philadelphia Unemployment Project demonstrating to save AdultBasic, the State of Pennsylvania insurance program to cover the unemployed. The Blues have refused to extend the contract.
Why did the insurance industry try so hard to destroy the credibility of Michael Moore's "Sicko"? Because once Americans saw what other countries had, they would begin to see what was possible -- and that would be bad for health insurers.
I'm pretty sure Americans would feel the same way if they saw the kind of safety net available to citizens in other countries -- Germany, for instance. Via Democrats Ramshield, an American expat, writing for Alternet:
The European Union has a larger economy and more people than America does. Though it spends less -- right around 9 percent of GNP on medical, whereas we in the U.S. spend close to between 15 to 16 percent of GNP on medical -- the EU pretty much insures 100 percent of its population.I deal with this lack of insurance all the time, and it's pretty depressing. But I'm one of the lucky ones. I now go to a federally-funded city health center (where I wonder if the guy hacking next to me has tuberculosis -- or just the flu) -- where they offer some services, but not others. If I have a heart attack or need surgery, well, I'm probably out of luck. So excuse me if I'm not absolutely thrilled that I'll be offered bare-bones Medicaid coverage (something many providers won't accept) a few years in the distant future:
The U.S. has 59 million people medically uninsured; 132 million without dental insurance; 60 million without paid sick leave; 40 million on food stamps. Everybody in the European Union has cradle-to-grave access to universal medical and a dental plan by law. The law also requires paid sick leave; paid annual leave; paid maternity leave. When you realize all of that, it becomes easy to understand why many Europeans think America has gone insane.
Der Spiegel has run an interesting feature called "A Superpower in Decline," which attempts to explain to a German audience such odd phenomena as the rise of the Tea Party, without the hedging or attempts at "balance" found in mainstream U.S. media.
[...] The piece continues with the sobering assessment that America’s actual unemployment rate isn’t really 10 percent, but close to 20 percent when we factor in the number of people who have stopped looking for work.
Some social scientists think that making sure large-scale crime or fascism never takes root in Europe again requires a taxpayer investment in a strong social safety net. Can we learn from Europe? Isn't it better to invest in a social safety net than in a large criminal justice system? (In America over 2 million people are incarcerated.)
Unlike here, in Germany jobless benefits never run out. Not only that -- as part of their social safety net, all job seekers continue to be medically insured, as are their families.
In the German jobless benefit system, when "jobless benefit 1" runs out, "jobless benefit 2," also known as HartzIV, kicks in. That one never gets cut off. The jobless also have contributions made for their pensions. They receive other types of insurance coverage from the state. As you can imagine, the estimated 2 million unemployed Americans who almost had no benefits this Christmas seems a particular horror show to Europeans, made worse by the fact that the U.S. government does not provide any medical insurance to American unemployment recipients. Europeans routinely recoil at that in disbelief and disgust.
[...] It's important to note that no country in the European Union uses food stamps in order to humiliate its disadvantaged citizens in the grocery checkout line. Even worse is the fact that even the humbling food stamp allotment may not provide enough food for America’s jobless families. So it is on a reoccurring basis that some of these families report eating out of garbage cans to the European media.
For Pam Brown, last winter was the worst. One day she ran out of food completely and had to go through trash cans. She fell into a deep depression ... For many, like Brown, the downfall is a Kafkaesque odyssey, a humiliation hard to comprehend. Help is not in sight: their government and their society have abandoned them.
Pam Brown and her children were disturbingly, indeed incomprehensibly, allowed to fall straight to the bottom. The richest country in the world becomes morally bankrupt when someone like Pam Brown and her children have to pick through trash to eat, abandoned with a callous disregard by the American government. People like Brown have found themselves dispossessed due to the robber baron actions of the Wall Street elite.
As the Great Recession has sown unemployment and downgraded work even for those people who have held on to their jobs, the number of Americans lacking healthcare has swelled beyond 50 million, according to a sobering new report from the Kaiser Foundation.This isn't a matter of who's in the White House. Our entire system is persistently slanted in favor of the rich and powerful, and it's getting worse by the day.
Among the report's most troubling findings: The number of Americans without any health care coverage grew by more than four million in 2009. That left almost one-fifth of non-elderly people uninsured. Among those between 19 and 29 years old, nearly one-third lacked coverage.
The study underscores the degree to which the recession has accelerated the loss of basic elements once viewed as inextricable pieces of a middle class life. The number of Americans lacking medical coverage now exceeds the population of Spain.
Nearly all Americans over 65 are insured by Medicare, the government-run health care plan, but those beneath that age are increasingly vulnerable to losing health care once provided by their employers or finding themselves unable to afford private coverage, according to the report, "The Uninsured: A Primer."
As those lacking health insurance grow in number, so do those missing out on necessary medical attention. About one-in-four uninsured adults have forgone care in the past year because of costs, compared to only 4 percent of those who have private coverage, according to the report.
Note: These Pathological Liars were not too concerned about The Deficit when they were fighting to extend the Unfunded Deficit Exploding Tax Cut for The Filthy Rich. Now, all of the sudden they are concerned about the Exploding Deficit so they want to cut spending via all Social Service Programs and steal the Pensions from people who worked hard all their lives. GOP Thugs, Stealing from the poor to give to the rich.
GOP Plan to Force State Bankruptcy to Cripple Public Employee Unions (Video)
by: | Countdown With Keith Olbermann | News Analysis
James Pethokoukis, Money and politics columnist for Reuters talks about apparent Republican support for allowing states to declare bankruptcy as a means of undermining unions. "Republicans appear to be quietly and methodically executing a plan that would ...cripple public employee unions by pushing cash-strapped states like California and Illinois to declare bankruptcy. This may be the biggest political battle ... of 2011."
Note: The only thing that I disagree with here is this: America is already Fascist. Fascism was ushered in on January 21st, 2010 by five corrupt corporate owned
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
The Whistle Has Been Blown, But Where's the Enforcement?
By RALPH NADER
The corporate defrauding of taxpayers (eg. Medicaid and Medicare) and prescription drugs with skyrocketing prices was the subject of a report by Public Citizen's Dr. Sidney Wolfe and his associates (see citizen.org).
Dr. Wolfe's team compiled a total of 165 federal and state settlements since 1991 totaling $19.8 billion in penalties. A key finding is that the drug industry's penalties under the Federal False Claims Act exceed even those assessed against the overcharging defense industry for fraud.
Before we become overly impressed with the cumulative amount of the penalties, specialists in corporate crime law enforcement believe that adding more federal cops on the corporate crime beat, backed by a determined law and order Justice Department with White House backing, would have greatly increased the number of cases and imposition of penalties on these drug industry giants.
Nonetheless, Dr. Wolfe's study shows that the pace of penalties has picked up over the past five years. This is due to "a combination of increased violations by companies and increased law enforcement on the part of federal and state governments," says the report.
Many of these cases were initiated by company whistleblowers, who under the False Claims Act can receive a share of the settlements. Since the corporate bosses of these drug firms are almost never prosecuted, what these executives fear the most are company employees who go public with the evidence of corporate misdeeds.
These violations do more than financial damage to consumers and government health insurance programs. One of the worst violations involves companies promoting unproven, often dangerous uses for their medicines. Last year, Pfizer paid $1.2 billion for illegal off-label promotion -the largest criminal fine in U.S.history. Other major corporate violators were GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly, Schering-Plough, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AstraZeneca, TAP Pharmaceutical, Merck, Serono, Purdue, Allergan, Novartis, Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson, Forest Laboratories, Sanofi-aventis, Bayer, Mylan, Teva and King Pharmaceuticals.
The violations by these and other drug companies point to the wide range of impacts, including taking many lives of patients, which stems from these recurrent activities. These criminal or civil illegalities cover (1) overcharging government health programs, (2) unlawful promotion, (3) monopoly practices, (4) kickbacks, (5) concealing study findings, (6) poor manufacturing practices, (7) environmental violations, (8) financial violations and (9) illegal distribution.
Outside the purview of the Public Citizen study are the ravages of counterfeit drugs and poorly inspected ingredients in drugs, now mostly coming from China and India, due to the outsourcing by U.S. and European drug companies in their thirst for even greater profits.
Drug company sales are huge, growing from $40 billion in 1990 to $234 billion in 2008, and far exceeding inflation with their annual price gouging. To make matters worse, in 2003, the Congressional Republicans, with decisive support from some Democrats, passed the drug benefit bill which explicitly prohibited Uncle Sam, the payer, from bargaining for volume discounts with drug companies.
With over 400 full-time drug company lobbyists putting pressure on Congress, and tens of millions of dollars flowing into the legislators' campaign coffers, budgets for federal investigators, prosecutors and inspectors are kept to a minimum. Unfortunately, crime in the suites pays over and over again, despite occasional penalties.
A bright spot is the increasing enforcement action at the state level.
By last year, 32 states had enacted false claims acts, including fourteen states that qualified as strong laws by federal standards.
Still, the Wolfe report concludes that the "current system of enforcement is not working." He gives the examples of the $7.44 billion in financial penalties assessed over the past twenty years on GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, as compared to their combined total of $16.5 billion in global net profits in one year alone.
What would deter these illegal practices and risks to public safety? Dr. Wolfe says "the lack of criminal prosecution that would result in jailing of company executives." is key. Moreover, the report notes that "a felony conviction could result in their companies becoming ineligible for reimbursement from federal and state health programs, a critical source of pharmaceutical company revenues."
A flicker of hope that a little change is on the way came from the Food and Drug Administration's Deputy Chief Counsel for Litigation, Eric Blumberg. He indicated that the government is considering going after drug company executives for violations such as off-label promotions. He stated: ".unless the government shows more resolve to criminally charge individuals-at all levels in the corporate hierarchy--.we can not expect to make progress in deterring off-label promotion."
The problem is that the final operating decision is in the hands of the Justice Department-historically short-staffed and short-willed to entreaties for prosecution by the FDA and other regulatory agencies.
Furthermore, for over 30 years, the Justice Department has stone-walled requests that it start a corporate crime database as it has done with street crimes. Congress likes it this way, as it continues to cash corporate campaign checks.
Just last week, however, outgoing Judiciary Committee Chairman, Democrat John Conyers introduced a bill (H.R. 6545) to create such a corporate crime data base in the Justice Department. Well, as the saying goes, everything starts with a gesture!
Ralph Nader is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.
James K. Boyce is a Professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the Director of the Program on Development, Peacebuilding, and the Environment at PERI - The Political Economy Research Institute.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Tom Coburn: 'Apocalyptic Pain' Could Result If Spending Isn't Controlled
NOTE: Seems The only Americans that the hypocritical Sen. Tom Coburn expects to do all the 'sacrificing' are the ones who are already sacrificing for the filthy rich. Coburn's main objective is to make sure the rich get even richer off the backs that are already bowed. This phony is does not care about Americans. He proved that by voting against The 9/11 First Responder Bill any every other humane Bill that would help struggling Americans, Yet this unethical Corporate Owned **Louse fought to extend to the filthy rich The Unfunded Bush Tax Break.
**Louse (as in "insect") n. : wingless usually flattened blood-sucking insect parasitic on warm-blooded animals
Republican Sen. Tom Coburn says confidence in the country's economy and currency will be "undermined significantly" in the next several years if the government doesn't find a way to cut federal spending.
Coburn says the U.S. must begin to chip away at the country's huge debt and slash hundreds of billions from the budget in wasteful spending or face the kind of severe fiscal crisis that has plagued Ireland and Greece.
The Hill reports:
Senate Republicans' "Dr. No" spending hawk warned Sunday that America would experience "apocalyptic pain" with 15-18 percent unemployment and the "middle class destroyed" if it didn't get its fiscal house in order.
The Oklahoma Republican offered his grim view on the country's future while speaking on "Fox News Sunday."
Coburn says all Americans must make sacrifices to secure the country's fiscal future. He says he could find more than $300 billion a year in spending that could be cut without objection from the American people.
by Eliza Griswold
A boy can't get to school because of crumbling roads and sewage. Eliza Griswold reports on why the landscape at home looks like a war-torn country.
E.J. Montoya, 16, has the well-muscled shoulders of a football player and a glossy, black braid down his back. He is a member of the Santa Ana Pueblo, one of the 22 tribes in New Mexico. On the reservation, Montoya lives with his mother and older brother in a trailer at the end of a rough dirt track about 30 miles north of the city of Albuquerque.
Waking at 6 am to make the 2 to 3 hour commute to school, Montoya peels a pair of headphones blasting heavy metal from his ears. He sleeps to the blare of Rush to drown out the sounds of his brother, a 20-year old high school drop out, and his friends who party all night in Montoya's room, which they call "the man's den."
If it's not raining so hard that the dirt road he lives on is impassable; and if his mother's white sedan is running on this morning; and if she has gas money, plus two dollars to give E.J for the rail runner train and a city bus; then Montoya can make the two-hour trip to school.
Montoya's short life story is the unsung tale of America's crumbling infrastructure—bridges, roads, drinking water, sewage lines, and the list goes on. Essentially, everything we rely on to move through our daily lives, and never stop to consider—until it breaks down.
In the next five years, the American Society of Civil Engineers http://www.asce.org/ estimates that the United States will have to spend more than one trillion dollars simply to sustain what we already have.
On Indian reservations, the situation is even direr. The state of New Mexico estimates it needs one billion dollars to address such everyday concerns as the lack of clean water, sewers, good roads, and electricity.
"Indian people are wards of the state," New Mexico's Indian Affairs Secretary Alvin Warren said. In exchange for laying down their weapons, Native Americans are supposed to have their basic needs guaranteed by the state. "That means that the government is responsible for projects like supplying running water and electricity to reservations, where, even at the beginning of the 21st century, there is none at all."
It would seem that infrastructure could be a pretty remote subject for a teenager, but mention it to Montoya, and he'll provide an immediate list of obstacles from bad roads to ruined buildings that keep him from getting to school. On his reservation, the most dangerous place is the broken down public pool. "Grown-ups take kids down there to get them drunk," Montoya said. His solution: "Either fix it, or blow it up."
"Kids do drugs because they have nothing to do," he said. Basketball, baseball, soccer, he plays every sport and signs up for any after-school activity to stay off the reservation for as long as possible. "Being busy keeps me out of trouble," Montoya said one recent evening when I drove him home from school.
We were parked outside his trailer in a rented white SUV. Around us in the darkness: a broken baby carriage, a rattletrap Volvo sedan, an anonymous pile of junk littered on the bare ground. I've seen this kind of chaos in refugee camps in Eastern Congo and gypsy settlements in Rome, but not in America.
Christ Chavez, Bloomberg / Getty Images
Of all he does, Montoya is most proud of the care he has taken of at least nine of his dogs—Brian, Zoe, Waffles and Waffles, among others. He is proud they have died "of natural causes," that none have wandered onto the rushing highway nearby and been killed.
He surveyed the yard with a survivor's gaze. "School is my family," he said. Montoya is a tenth grader at Native American Community Academy, a cutting edge charter school for nearly four hundred Indian kids. School, he believed, was the only thing keeping him from becoming a drop out and drug addict, or worse.
I've seen this kind of chaos in refugee camps in Eastern Congo and gypsy settlements in Rome, but not in America.
Native American kids between the ages of 15 and 24 are nearly four times as likely to commit suicide as others, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Several factors contribute to these staggering rates—failing schools, no jobs, isolation on reservations or inner cities.
"Suicide rates are as high as they are because there's no recreation," said Warren.
Montoya's cutting-edge school, Native American Community Academy, is an innovative effort to break that cycle of isolation. Several years ago, its founder and principal, Kara Bobroff decided to start a charter school. For the first time in history, she brought together the University of New Mexico and the public school system to service Native American kids. With 400 students from sixth to twelfth grade, NACA is now bursting from the pressed metal seams of the temporary buildings called portables.
The school is essentially a cluster of 27 portables sitting on a gravel lot in a neighborhood of downtown Albuquerque known as the "International District." Inside the chain link fence, the students had planted a small garden of tomatoes and healing herbs they were learning about. A larger garden had just been razed to make room for a larger trailer. There was a charred stump left where once the kids had made a painted pole for ceremonies. One night, it simply vanished—cut down either by vandals or by cold neighbors who could have chopped it up for firewood.
This site is supposed to be temporary. And Bobroff has raised $12.6 million dollars to break ground on the site where her school is supposed to be standing. Yet, due largely to red tape, construction has yet to begin. So her students are stuck in portables. For obvious reasons, winter poses a particular challenge.
For these students, who are used to feeling like second-class citizens, going to school in portables is demoralizing. What makes it worse is that their portables are parked next door to a neighboring public school. Since NACA has no gym, no cafeteria, no basketball court, no library, they have to ask to borrow them for dances or games from the school next door. This, too, has led to trouble. Last year, Montoya nearly got in a fight during lunch at the school next door.
"One kid killed called me a dirty, little Indian," he said. The insult was unremarkable, he explained, most kids at NACA are used to such taunts from their old schools.
As a makeshift solution, Bobroff has wrangled a way to serve hot breakfast and lunch at NACA by using the scant budget to hire an outside cook, and teaching kids about eating healthy food as part of the curriculum.
This winter, as the snow falls, these kids will either sit at lunch tables in the snow, or cram into makeshift cafeteria classrooms to eat, what is for many, their only two meals of the day.
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Sunday, December 26, 2010
Frontline: "The Warning" (Full Video) The hidden history of the nation's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression
"We didn't truly know the dangers of the market, because it was a dark market," says Brooksley Born, the head of an obscure federal regulatory agency -- the Commodity Futures Trading Commission [CFTC] -- who not only warned of the potential for economic meltdown in the late 1990s, but also tried to convince the country's key economic powerbrokers to take actions that could have helped avert the crisis. "They were totally opposed to it," Born says. "That puzzled me. What was it that was in this market that had to be hidden?"
"I didn't know Brooksley Born," says former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, a member of President Clinton's powerful Working Group on Financial Markets. "I was told that she was irascible, difficult, stubborn, unreasonable." Levitt explains how the other principals of the Working Group -- former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin -- convinced him that Born's attempt to regulate the risky derivatives market could lead to financial turmoil, a conclusion he now believes was "clearly a mistake."
Born's battle behind closed doors was epic, Kirk finds. The members of the President's Working Group vehemently opposed regulation -- especially when proposed by a Washington outsider like Born.
"I walk into Brooksley's office one day; the blood has drained from her face," says Michael Greenberger, a former top official at the CFTC who worked closely with Born. "She's hanging up the telephone; she says to me: 'That was [former Assistant Treasury Secretary] Larry Summers. He says, "You're going to cause the worst financial crisis since the end of World War II."... [He says he has] 13 bankers in his office who informed him of this. Stop, right away. No more.'"
Greenspan, Rubin and Summers ultimately prevailed on Congress to stop Born and limit future regulation of derivatives. "Born faced a formidable struggle pushing for regulation at a time when the stock market was booming," Kirk says. "Alan Greenspan was the maestro, and both parties in Washington were united in a belief that the markets would take care of themselves."
Now, with many of the same men who shut down Born in key positions in the Obama administration, The Warning reveals the complicated politics that led to this crisis and what it may say about current attempts to prevent the next one.
"It'll happen again if we don't take the appropriate steps," Born warns. "There will be significant financial downturns and disasters attributed to this regulatory gap over and over until we learn from experience."
The Biggest Bank Robbery In History? More Quantitative Easing = Backdoor Bailouts For The Big Banks Without Having To Go Through Congress
The U.S. Federal Reserve is getting ready to conduct another gigantic bailout of the big banks, but this time virtually nobody in the mainstream media will use the term "bailout" and the American people are going to get a lot less upset about it. You see, one lesson that was learned during the last round of bank bailouts was that the American people really, really do not like it when the U.S. Congress votes to give money to the big banks. So this time, the financial "powers that be" have figured out a way around that. Instead of going through the massive headache of dealing with the U.S. Congress, the Federal Reserve is simply going to print money and give it directly to the banks. To be more precise, the Federal Reserve is going to use a procedure known as "quantitative easing" to print money out of thin air in order to purchase large quantities of "troubled assets" (such as mortgage-backed securities) from the biggest U.S. banks at well above market price. Some are already openly wondering if this next round of quantitative easing is going to be the biggest bank robbery in history. Most Americans won't understand these "backdoor bailouts" well enough to get upset about them, but that doesn't mean that they won't be just as bad (or even worse) than the last round of bailouts. In the end, all of the inflation that this new round of quantitative easing is going to cause is going to be a "hidden tax" on all of us.
These new backdoor bailouts are going to work something like this....
1) The big U.S. banks have massive quantities of junk mortgage-backed securities that are worth little to nothing that they desperately want to get rid of.
2) They convince the Federal Reserve (which the big banks are part-owners of) to buy up these "toxic assets" at way above market price.
3) The Federal Reserve creates massive amounts of money out of thin air to buy up all of these troubled assets. The public is told that all of this "quantitative easing" is necessary to stimulate the U.S. economy.
4) The big banks are re-capitalized and have gotten massive amounts of bad mortgage securities off their hands, the Federal Reserve has found a way to pump hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of dollars into the economy, and most of the American people are none the wiser.
During a recent appearance on MSNBC, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone did a great job of explaining how this all works....
But this isn't the only way that the Federal Reserve forks over massive amounts of cash to the big U.S. banks. In a previous article, I described how the U.S. Federal Reserve lends huge quantities of nearly interest-free money to big U.S. banks which they turn around and invest in U.S. Treasuries which bring in a return of three percent or so. In essence, it is a legalized way for the big U.S. banks to make mountains and mountains of free money.
The truth is that the Federal Reserve does whatever it can to ensure that the big U.S. banks stay fat and happy.
So what about the small banks? What happens to them?
Well, the vast majority of the small banks are considered "not big enough for bailouts" and they are allowed to die like dogs.
Don't let anyone ever fool you into thinking that the U.S. banking system has a level playing field.
For weeks, Federal Reserve officials have been coming out and have been dropping hints about how important it is for them to take "action" and implement another round of quantitative easing in order to help stimulate the U.S. economy.
In fact, during his speech on Friday, you could almost hear Ben Bernanke salivating at the thought of printing more money.
But nobody ever really asks who is going to be the first to get their hands on all this money that the Fed is going to pump into the economy.
The answer, of course, is obvious.
It is going to be the big banks - the same banks that are part-owners of the Federal Reserve and that have tremendous influence over Fed policies.
But even though this is all more than a little shady, is it such a bad thing for the rest of us if the Federal Reserve bails out the big banks and brings some much needed stability back to the U.S. financial system?
After all, if "Foreclosure-Gate" could potentially cause a nightmarish financial meltdown, isn't it better for the Federal Reserve to step in and soak up large amounts of these toxic assets?
Those are legitimate questions.
Certainly the Federal Reserve has the power to step in and smooth over all sorts of short-term problems by papering them with money, but in the end printing more money will just make our long-term problems even worse.
Whenever a new dollar is introduced into the system, every other dollar in existence loses a little bit of value.
When trillions of new dollars get introduced into the system, it has the potential to create an inflationary nightmare.
Already, a number of top Fed officials are publicly saying that inflation is "too low" and that we need to purposely generate more inflation in order to "stimulate" the U.S. economy.
Yes, that is just as insane as it sounds, but that is what they are actually proposing.
Apparently many top Federal Reserve officials honestly believe that they can pump trillions into the economy, jack up inflation significantly, and little harm will be done.
But even before "QE2" has begun, we are already starting to see all kinds of little bubbles beginning to develop in the financial system. For example, commodity prices are skyrocketing right now, and that will soon be affecting the price we pay for food at the supermarket.
We are already on the road to serious inflation and the Federal Reserve has not even fired up the money hoses yet. So what is going to happen after they pump trillions more into the economy?
Printing more money and giving it to the banks is not going to solve our economic problems. It is just going to make them worse.
But unfortunately, American voters get no say about any of this. Our national monetary policy is in the hands of an unelected central bank that does pretty much whatever it wants.
An economic nightmare is coming, and you had better get ready.
The whistle-blowing Web site WikiLeaks has not been convicted of a crime. The Justice Department has not even pressed charges over its disclosure of confidential State Department communications. Nonetheless, the financial industry is trying to shut it down.
Visa, MasterCard and PayPal announced in the past few weeks that they would not process any transaction intended for WikiLeaks. Earlier this month, Bank of America decided to join the group, arguing that WikiLeaks may be doing things that are “inconsistent with our internal policies for processing payments.”
The Federal Reserve, the banking regulator, allows this. Like other companies, banks can choose whom they do business with. Refusing to open an account for some undesirable entity is seen as reasonable risk management. The government even requires banks to keep an eye out for some shady businesses — like drug dealing and money laundering — and refuse to do business with those who engage in them.
But a bank’s ability to block payments to a legal entity raises a troubling prospect. A handful of big banks could potentially bar any organization they disliked from the payments system, essentially cutting them off from the world economy.
The fact of the matter is that banks are not like any other business. They run the payments system. That is one of the main reasons that governments protect them from failure with explicit and implicit guarantees. This makes them look not too unlike other public utilities. A telecommunications company, for example, may not refuse phone or broadband service to an organization it dislikes, arguing that it amounts to risky business.
Our concern is not specifically about payments to WikiLeaks. This isn’t the first time a bank shunned a business on similar risk-management grounds. Banks in Colorado, for instance, have refused to open bank accounts for legal dispensaries of medical marijuana.
Still, there are troubling questions. The decisions to bar the organization came after its founder, Julian Assange, said that next year it will release data revealing corruption in the financial industry. In 2009, Mr. Assange said that WikiLeaks had the hard drive of a Bank of America executive.
What would happen if a clutch of big banks decided that a particularly irksome blogger or other organization was “too risky”? What if they decided — one by one — to shut down financial access to a newspaper that was about to reveal irksome truths about their operations? This decision should not be left solely up to business-as-usual among the banks.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Senator Bernie Sanders. In 2010, the hijacking of American democracy by corporations and the super-rich became almost complete. Almost no politician in the US runs for office without begging and scrounging huge campaign funds from the rich -- so when they are elected, they must serve their interests, not ordinary Americans'. You can see the results everywhere. In the middle of a recession, there was a massive tax cut for millionaires and billionaires -- and a tax rise on the poorest Americans. Bill Gates pays less; a family living in a cold trailer-park with no healthcare pays more. While spending on schools and the poor was slashed, huge give-aways to corporations were ramped up, by both the Obama administration and the Republicans -- who are in the corrupt pay of the same people.
But one American politician, more than any other, showed there can still be a different, democratic way of doing politics in America. Bernie Sanders was elected as the independent socialist senator for Vermont with 65 percent of the vote in 2006, in a fight against the richest man in the state. He did it by turning down Big Money and instead organizing amongst ordinary citizens -- by promising to defend their interests against the people ripping them off.
He won over even very conservative parts of his state to a self-described socialist agenda by telling them: "Conservative Republicans don't have healthcare. Conservative Republicans can't afford to send their kids to college. Conservative Republicans are being thrown out of their jobs as our good-paying jobs move to China. You need somebody to stand up to protect your economic well-being. Look, we're not going to agree on every issue, that's for sure. But don't vote against your own interest. I don't mind really if millionaires vote against me. They probably should. But for working people, we've got to come together." In the place of the fake populism of the Tea Party, he offered real populism. In office, he kept his word. He has been demanding a real healthcare deal, trying to end the country's disastrous jihadi-creating wars, and captured America' imagination by standing for nine hours in the Senate trying to filibuster Obama's sell-out of his principles and his people. This is what democracy looks like.
By Johann Hari
Columnist for the London Independent
Bradley Manning. While we were all fixated on Julian Assange, the story of the young American soldier who actually leaked the classified documents passed almost unnoticed. If Manning was mentioned at all, it was as to be described an impetuous, angry kid who downloaded the documents onto a CD and leaked them as a result of a "grudge" or "tantrum."
Here's what really happened. Manning signed up when he was just 18 believing him would be protecting and defending his country and the cause of freedom. He soon found himself sent to Iraq, where he was ordered to round up and hand over Iraqi civilians to America's new Iraqi allies, who he could see were then torturing them with electrical drills and other implements. The only "crime" committed by many of these people was to write "scholarly critiques" of the occupation or the new people in charge. He knew torture was a crime under US, Iraqi and international law, so he went to his military supervisor and explained what was going on. He was told to shut up and get back to herding up Iraqis.
Manning had to choose between being complicit in these atrocities, or not. At the age of 21, he made a brave choice -- to put human rights before his own interests. He found the classified military documents revealing the US was covering up the deaths of 15,000 Iraqis and had a de facto policy of allowing the Iraqis they had installed in power to carry out torture -- and he decided he had a moral obligation to show them to the American people. To prevent the major crime of torturing and murdering innocents, he committed the minor crime of leaking the evidence. He has spent the last seven months in solitary confinement -- a punishment that causes many prisoners to go mad and which the US National Commission on Prisons called "torturous." He is expected to be sentenced to 80 years in jail at least. The people who allowed torture have faced no punishment at all.
Manning's decision was no "tantrum" -- it was one of the most admirable stands for justice and freedom of 2010. We need to stand by him now and make sure he isn't forgotten. To find out how you can support him, click here.
Follow Johann Hari on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johannhari101
Friday, December 24, 2010
by Abby Zimet
Gays can now sort of join the U.S. Army - even if we hope they don't - but atheists still have to stand in line to get equality. It seems the Army's "Soldier Fitness Tracker" considers not just emotional, social, and family but "spiritual" fitness before allowing you to kill for your country. And if you don't believe in "something larger than yourself" for "meaning and purpose in your life," they'll give you counselling to change your barbaric ways. What separation of...? As a nice counterpoint, we offer Ricky Gervais' lucid, funny, compassionate and wise holiday take on the gifts and virtues of atheism.
A Holiday Message From Ricky Gervais: Why I’m an Atheist
Arrogance is another accusation. Which seems particularly unfair. Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence -- evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge. It doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition. If it did, you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leach down your trousers and pray.
Whatever you “believe,” this is not as effective as medicine. Again you can say, “It works for me,” but so do placebos. My point being, I’m saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist. I know faith exists. I see it all the time. But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true.
The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.
Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this. If I came up to you and said, “Why don’t you believe I can fly?” You’d say, “Why would I?” I’d reply, “Because it’s a matter of faith.” If I then said, “Prove I can’t fly. Prove I can’t fly see, see, you can’t prove it can you?” You’d probably either walk away, call security or throw me out of the window and shout, ‘’F—ing fly then you lunatic.”
This, is of course a spirituality issue, religion is a different matter. As an atheist, I see nothing “wrong” in believing in a god. I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me. It’s when belief starts infringing on other people’s rights when it worries me. I would never deny your right to believe in a god. I would just rather you didn’t kill people who believe in a different god, say. Or stone someone to death because your rulebook says their sexuality is immoral. It’s strange that anyone who believes that an all-powerful all-knowing, omniscient power responsible for everything that happens, would also want to judge and punish people for what they are. From what I can gather, pretty much the worst type of person you can be is an atheist. The first four commandments hammer this point home. There is a god, I’m him, no one else is, you’re not as good and don’t forget it.
(Don’t murder anyone, doesn’t get a mention till number 6.)
When confronted with anyone who holds my lack of religious faith in such contempt, I say, “It’s the way God made me.”
But what are atheists really being accused of?
The dictionary definition of God is “a supernatural creator and overseer of the universe.” Included in this definition are all deities, goddesses and supernatural beings. Since the beginning of recorded history, which is defined by the invention of writing by the Sumerians around 6,000 years ago, historians have cataloged over 3700 supernatural beings, of which 2870 can be considered deities.
So next time someone tells me they believe in God, I’ll say “Oh which one?
Zeus? Hades? Jupiter? Mars? Odin? Thor? Krishna? Vishnu? Ra?…” If they say “Just God. I only believe in the one God,” I’ll point out that they are nearly as atheistic as me. I don’t believe in 2,870 gods, and they don’t believe in 2,869.
I used to believe in God. The Christian one that is.
I loved Jesus. He was my hero. More than pop stars. More than footballers.
More than God. God was by definition omnipotent and perfect. Jesus was a man. He had to work at it.
He had temptation but defeated sin. He had integrity and courage. But He was my hero because He was kind. And He was kind to everyone. He didn’t bow to peer pressure or tyranny or cruelty. He didn’t care who you were. He loved you. What a guy. I wanted to be just like Him.
One day when I was about 8 years old, I was drawing the crucifixion as part of my Bible studies homework. I loved art too. And nature. I loved how God made all the animals. They were also perfect.
Unconditionally beautiful. It was an amazing world.
I lived in a very poor, working-class estate in an urban sprawl called Reading, about 40 miles west of London. My father was a laborer and my mother was a housewife. I was never ashamed of poverty. It was almost noble. Also, everyone I knew was in the same situation, and I had everything I needed. School was free. My clothes were cheap and always clean and ironed. And mum was always cooking.
She was cooking the day I was drawing on the cross.
I was sitting at the kitchen table when my brother came home. He was 11 years older than me, so he would have been 19. He was as smart as anyone I knew, but he was too cheeky. He would answer back and get into trouble. I was a good boy. I went to church and believed in God -– what a relief for a working-class mother. You see, growing up where I did, mums didn’t hope as high as their kids growing up to be doctors; they just hoped their kids didn’t go to jail. So bring them up believing in God and they’ll be good and law abiding. It’s a perfect system. Well, nearly. 75 percent of Americans are God-‐fearing Christians; 75 percent of prisoners are God-‐fearing Christians.
10 percent of Americans are atheists; 0.2 percent of prisoners are atheists.
But anyway, there I was happily drawing my hero when my big brother Bob asked, “Why do you believe in God?” Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. “Bob,” she said in a tone that I knew meant, “Shut up.” Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong it didn’t matter what people said.
Oh…hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.
Wow. No God. If mum had lied to me about God, had she also lied to me about Santa? Yes, of course, but who cares? The gifts kept coming. And so did the gifts of my new found atheism. The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. I learned of evolution -– a theory so simple that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals and us –- with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live.
And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.
But living an honest life -– for that you need the truth. That’s the other thing I learned that day, that the truth, however shocking or uncomfortable, in the end leads to liberation and dignity.
So what does the question “Why don’t you believe in God?” really mean. I think when someone asks that they are really questioning their own belief. In a way they are asking “what makes you so special? “How come you weren’t brainwashed with the rest of us?” “How dare you say I’m a fool and I’m not going to heaven, f— you!” Let’s be honest, if one person believed in God he would be considered pretty strange.
But because it’s a very popular view it’s accepted. And why is it such a popular view? That’s obvious. It’s an attractive proposition. Believe in me and live forever. Again if it was just a case of spirituality this would be fine.
“Do unto others…” is a good rule of thumb. I live by that. Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. But that’s exactly what it is -‐ a virtue.
Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good. I’m good. I just don’t believe I’ll be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life. And that’s where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. “Do this or you’ll burn in hell.”
You won’t burn in hell. But be nice anyway.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Shepard Smith excoriated the Senators who are holding up the so-called "Zadroga Bill" to assist 9/11 first responders who suffer from medical problems as a result of their time at Ground Zero. The bill, which provides $7 billion for the responders, passed the House but is being held up by Republicans in the Senate.
Speaking to Fox News colleague Chris Wallace on Friday, Smith asked, "How do they sleep at night after this vote on Ground Zero first responders from 9/11? Are they going to get that done, or are we going to leave these American heroes out there to twist in the wind?"
Wallace said he agreed that the bill needed to be passed.
Smith said he had watched Jon Stewart's Thursday show, which was devoted exclusively to the bill. He called Stewart "absolutely right," and said the holdup on the bill was shameful:
"Who's going to hold these people's feet to the fire? We're able to put a 52 story building so far down there at Ground Zero, we're able to pay for tax cuts for billionaires who don't need them and it's not going to stimulate the economy. But we can't give health care to Ground Zero first responders who ran right into the fire? Went down there to save people? Do people know what this city was like that day? People were walking over bridges, they were covered in ash, they were running for their lives, they were crying, their family members were dead. And these people ran to Ground Zero to save people's lives. And we're not going to even give them medicine for the illnesses they got down there? It's disgusting, it's a national disgrace, it's a shame and everybody who voted against should have to stand up and account for himself or herself."
Smith continued making the comparison to the tax cuts, adding, "We spend a lot more money giving Warren Buffett his income tax refunds than we do doing anything for those people don't we?"
WASHINGTON — In 2008, a young sergeant named Coleman S. Bean took his life. After completing his first tour of duty in Iraq, he had come home and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nevertheless, he was deployed to Iraq a second time. Bean had sought treatment for PTSD but as a member of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), he found fewer resources available to him than to veterans and active-duty members.
In April, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) introduced legislation named after the late soldier meant to provide more resources for suicide prevention to Reserve members. The House in May incorporated it into the National Defense Authorization Act for 2011, but it was stripped from the final version, and Holt is pointing the finger at the lead Republican negotiator on the Senate legislation, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
"Twice now, the Senate has stripped this legislation from our defense bill," Holt told The Huffington Post Tuesday. "It's hard to understand why. I know for a fact, because he told me, that Sen. McCain doesn't support it. Whether he's the only one, I don't know. But there was no effort to try to improve the language or negotiate changes; it was just rejected, and I think that is not only bad policy, but it's cruel. It's cruel to the families that are struggling with catastrophic mental health problems."
"He [McCain] said having these counselors check in with the Reservists every few months this way overreaching," continued Holt, relaying a phone conversation he had had with the senator. "I asked him in what sense it was overreaching. Surely he didn't think there wasn't a problem, did he? I must say I don't understand it."
The major piece of Holt's amendment would require the Defense Department to ensure that every member of the Reserves who completes at least one tour of duty in either Iraq or Afghanistan receives "a counseling call from properly trained personnel not less than once every 90 days so long as the servicemember remains a member of the IRR." If they were determined to be at risk, they would receive counseling or mental health treatment.
The legislation is modeled on a program run by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which provides veterans with peer counseling and clinical assessments. Unlike the program proposed by Holt, however, veterans and their families are the ones to initiate assistance.
McCain spokesperson Brooke Buchanan took issue with Holt's version of events, saying that he should look to his House colleagues for why the amendment was removed.
"Unfortunately, and with all due respect, Holt's office is mischaracterizing Senator McCain's 'support' for the provision," wrote Buchanan in a statement to The Huffington Post. "The fact is the provision never entered conference and was actually removed on the House side before the bill was taken to conference. So whatever frustrations or concerns Congressman Holt may have should be directed to his colleagues on the House side. Senator McCain is committed to providing the necessary support to every service member and appreciates the special needs of our armed forces and the particular hardships they face both at home and abroad."
A Holt spokesman responded that the reason it was removed from the House version this year was because of pre-emptive objections from the Senate.
This week, Coleman's father Gregory, wrote a column expressing disappointment with McCain. "Late last week, the defense appropriations bill passed without Holt's measure as a part of it. Holt says he's furious; so are we," he stated. "In fact, I'm so angry that McCain -- who has dined out for decades as an 'advocate' for veterans -- made a unilateral decision to squash this fine, bipartisan measure that discretion dictates I write no more about it until I cool down."
Holt said going forward, he'll re-introduce his legislation as a stand-alone measure, try to get the language included in military health care legislation and help the Pentagon improve mental health services.
"I'll keep trying to have the best possible federal policy to provide this help," said Holt. "I thought it was just an oversight or a mistake when the Senate rejected this last year, but when they really deliberately and knowingly rejected it this time, I was just appalled."
In 2009, Holt also included his amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010, but an anonymous senator blocked the measure, and it was stripped out.
Monday, December 20, 2010
Chairman Genachowski calling CEOs of Internet corporations for endorsements of proposal to destroy Net Neutrality
This Tuesday is an important day in the fight to save the Internet.
As a source of innovation, an engine of our economy, and a forum for our political discourse, the Internet can only work if it's a truly level playing field. Small businesses should have the same ability to reach customers as powerful corporations. A blogger should have the same ability to find an audience as a media conglomerate.
This principle is called "net neutrality" -- and it's under attack. Internet service giants like Comcast and Verizon want to offer premium and privileged access to the Internet for corporations who can afford to pay for it.
The good news is that the Federal Communications Commission has the power to issue regulations that protect net neutrality. The bad news is that draft regulations written by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski don't do that at all. They're worse than nothing.
That's why Tuesday is such an important day. The FCC will be meeting to discuss those regulations, and we must make sure that its members understand that allowing corporations to control the Internet is simply unacceptable.
Although Chairman Genachowski's draft Order has not been made public, early reports make clear that it falls far short of protecting net neutrality.
For many Americans -- particularly those who live in rural areas -- the future of the Internet lies in mobile services. But the draft Order would effectively permit Internet providers to block lawful content, applications, and devices on mobile Internet connections.
Mobile networks like AT&T and Verizon Wireless would be able to shut off your access to content or applications for any reason. For instance, Verizon could prevent you from accessing Google Maps on your phone, forcing you to use their own mapping program, Verizon Navigator, even if it costs money to use and isn't nearly as good. Or a mobile provider with a political agenda could prevent you from downloading an app that connects you with the Obama campaign (or, for that matter, a Tea Party group in your area).
It gets worse. The FCC has never before explicitly allowed discrimination on the Internet -- but the draft Order takes a step backwards, merely stating that so-called "paid prioritization" (the creation of a "fast lane" for big corporations who can afford to pay for it) is cause for concern.
It sure is -- but that's exactly why the FCC should ban it. Instead, the draft Order would have the effect of actually relaxing restrictions on this kind of discrimination.
What's more, even the protections that are established in the draft Order would be weak because it defines "broadband Internet access service" too narrowly, making it easy for powerful corporations to get around the rules.
Here's what's most troubling of all. Chairman Genachowski and President Obama -- who nominated him -- have argued convincingly that they support net neutrality.
But grassroots supporters of net neutrality are beginning to wonder if we've been had. Instead of proposing regulations that would truly protect net neutrality, reports indicate that Chairman Genachowski has been calling the CEOs of major Internet corporations seeking their public endorsement of this draft proposal, which would destroy it.
No chairman should be soliciting sign-off from the corporations that his agency is supposed to regulate -- and no true advocate of a free and open Internet should be seeking the permission of large media conglomerates before issuing new rules.
After all, just look at Comcast -- this Internet monolith has reportedly imposed a new, recurring fee on Level 3 Communications, the company slated to be the primary online delivery provider for Netflix. That's the same Netflix that represents Comcast's biggest competition in video services.
Imagine if Comcast customers couldn't watch Netflix, but were limited only to Comcast's Video On Demand service. Imagine if a cable news network could get its website to load faster on your computer than your favorite local political blog. Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online. The Internet as we know it would cease to exist.
That's why net neutrality is the most important free speech issue of our time. And that's why, this Tuesday, when the FCC meets to discuss this badly flawed proposal, I'll be watching. If they approve it as is, I'll be outraged. And you should be, too.