Daniel Ellsberg, the Doomsday Machine, and Thinking the Unthinkable – posted 1/15/2018

January 16, 2018 Leave a comment

Daniel Ellsberg is best known as the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers. In 1971, as a high government official, he photocopied thousands of pages of secret documents which showed successive administrations had lied to the public about the war in Vietnam. He shared the information with the New York Times and the Washington Post, becoming one of the most famous whistleblowers ever.

Unknown until recently was the fact that Ellsberg also photocopied thousands of pages about nuclear war planning. Ellsberg had had a long career at the highest levels of government before the Vietnam War. In his earlier incarnation, Ellsberg, a former Marine and protege of Henry Kissinger, worked as a Pentagon and White House consultant, drafting plans for nuclear war.

Ellsberg had passed the nuclear war planning documents onto his brother Harry for safe-keeping. Things were too hot for Ellsberg to keep the documents after the Pentagon Papers story broke. For taking the Pentagon Papers, the government charged Ellsberg under the Espionage Act of 1917. He faced a maximum prison sentence of 115 years.

Ellsberg’s brother first buried the papers in a cardboard box inside a green garbage bag in his compost pile. Worried that the FBI would come looking (which they did), Harry Ellsberg moved the papers to a hidden spot in his town trash dump in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

That summer, a near-hurricane, tropical storm Doria, hit Hastings-on-Hudson and caused the slope where the papers were buried to collapse down and over a roadway. Although much effort went into finding the papers, they were never found.

For 45 years, Ellsberg remained silent about the secret nuclear documents but now he has published a new book, The Doomsday Machine, which recounts his personal history around nuclear war planning as well as the evolution of his thinking.

The book is a revelation and it raises so many essential questions which have been very inadequately discussed about nuclear war, realistic appraisal of its consequences, and nuclear winter. Ellsberg places his discussion inside a history of the law of war since the early 20th century.

The book is appropriately named after the classic 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove. In the movie, an unhinged Air Force General, Jack D. Ripper, orders a nuclear first strike attack on the Soviet Union. The president contacts the Russian premier and finds out that they have created a doomsday device which will detonate automatically if there is any nuclear strike within the USSR.

The doomsday device cannot be disconnected or untriggered if there is an attack on the Russian homeland. The Russians advise that their device would result in a radioactive shroud which would wipe out all human and animal life and make the surface of the earth uninhabitable for 93 years.

The movie was so dead-on that Ellsberg saw it as a documentary.

A turning point for Ellsberg came in 1961, He had drafted a question for President Kennedy to ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“If your plans for general (nuclear) war are carried out as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China?”

The answer came back in the form of a graph. The lowest number was 275 million. Within six months, after the nuclear attack, the number was 325 million.

Ellsberg drafted a follow-up question for the Joint Chiefs over the President’s signature. He asked for a total breakdown of global deaths from our attacks, including all countries that would be affected by fallout. The total death count was 600 million.

This was Ellsberg’s response:

“I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, this piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever…From that day on, I have had one overriding life purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan.”

Ellsberg’s revulsion propelled him into a later career as an anti-nuclear weapons activist. He came to believe the military had not thought through the consequences of nuclear war, minimizing and rationalizing the acute harm to the whole planet. Or, as he put it, they were in the grip of institutionalized madness.

The late, great sociologist, C. Wright Mills, would have called it “crackpot realism”.

In the Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg revisits episodes from the Cold War. As a bureaucratic in-fighter, he played a critical role in getting the Kennedy Administration to limit nuclear war plans. At the time, the military targetted every city in both the USSR and China with a population over 25,000 with at least one nuclear weapon.

Ellsberg argued that destruction of China should not be automatic if a war was only with the Soviet Union. The military wanted to attack China even if they had no role in a conflict. Some of our military leaders like Air Force General Curtis LeMay acted exactly like characters from Dr, Strangelove. Ellsberg did get the Kennedy Administration to exclude automatic attack on China in the event of armed conflict with the Soviet Union.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ellsberg shows how close we came to an all-out nuclear war. It was far closer than the public knew. The world barely escaped an almost unimagineable cataclysm.

Ellsberg busts mythologies like the president with his nuclear football being the only one who can launch a nuclear war. The military has many contingencies in the event communications are cut off. He shows there has been a much more widespread delegation of authority to launch. The picture is not reassuring.

Among the dangers, Ellsberg worries that a nuclear weapons launch could be triggered by a false alarm, a terrorist action, initiative by unauthorized individuals or a rash miscalculation in a military escalation scenario.

Ellsberg ends the book with a chapter on dismantling the doomsday machine. He recognizes the enormous institutional resistance to such an idea but he makes an extremely compelling argument for how it could be done. He specifies achievable reforms. He thinks it is astonishing that people will put up with more than a non-zero chance of a nuclear holocaust.

Possibly the most unsettling aspect of the Trump presidency has been the threat escalation with North Korea, a nuclear weapons state. Trump has been far too casual about the risks inherent in a nuclear war. He should not be talking about totally destroying any country or playing nuclear chicken. That is the height of irresponsibility.

The idea that a nuclear war would be limited and would not cause absolutely unacceptable consequences is folly and insane. The blowback from multiple nuclear explosions could cause a catastrophic nuclear winter where the living would envy the dead.

Have current American nuclear war planners arrived at a figure of how many millions dead would be acceptable to them? The public has a right to know the answer to that question.

Ellsberg has performed his greatest public service yet with the publication of this book.

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White privilege is a wrong-headed construction – posted 1/7/2018

January 7, 2018 Leave a comment

I read with interest John Meinhold’s opinion piece about white privilege that appeared in the Concord Monitor on December 14. Meinhold complained about the treatment of poor white folks in America. He argued that poor whites have been slurred as “white trash”. He noted the many white people who live in poverty and he questioned whether liberal Democrats have demonstrated caring about the struggles of poor whites.

I think Meinhold is right that poor whites have been denigrated and exploited. He is absolutely right that millions of white folks live in poverty. Since even before our nation’s founding, there have been masses of desperately poor white people living here. He is also right to complain that liberals, among others, have failed to sympathetically address poor whites.

Meinhold legitimately criticizes the idea that poor whites experience white privilege. I agree that is a wrong way to conceive of poor white folks’ experience.

When you are getting clobbered economically, you do not want to hear that you are somehow privileged.

I think it is a mistake to get into comparative victimology about whom has been exploited more. Poor whites and poor people of color have both been victimized by the 1%. Both compete for crumbs from the table. It is important to look at the different forms the exploitation has taken but I find the concept “white privilege” unhelpful to understanding.

The fact that black people experience compounded deprivations does not minimize the class oppression poor whites experience. It does not have to be one or the other and blacks and whites should not be set against each other as is the method of the alt-right and neo-nazis.

Those hate groups try to appeal to white people on the basis of their skin color. This is what the writer Kurt Vonnegut used to call a granfalloon, a group who affect a shared identity but whose mutual association is meaningless. Race haters are a discredited anachronism.

Both poor whites and people of color have been oppressed but the form of the oppression for each group is historically different.

Class remains the dirty, unacknowledged secret of American politics. We have been conditioned to think of America as a classless society, which is an absolute lie. Class remains a significant and often determinative fact of life.

Poor white people are not oppressed because of their skin color. Their oppression has everything to do with their class position in American society. In her book, White Trash, the historian, Nancy Isenberg, uncovers the untold story of how poor whites have been treated in America for the last 400 years.

Poor treatment is nothing new. While early American history typically highlights the Founding Fathers and their accomplishments, Isenberg explores colonial beginnings from the perspective of the poor. She shows that the great majority of early colonists were classified by the British as surplus population and expendable “rubbish”. The British hoped to use America as a dumping ground for populations they did not want.

Much public discussion of colonization in early America focuses on the quest for religious liberty. Isenberg shows that only a minority came to America for religious reasons. The British wanted to thin out their prisons and remove vagrants and beggars from their society and a forced one-way ticket to America was one way to do that.

Many poor whites came to America as indentured servants. They were forced to sign a contract by which they agreed to work for a certain number of years in exchange for the costly transportation to the new world. These contracts often lasted 4 to 7 years before they could be evaded. Other poor white immigrants came to escape debts that might have put them in prison. Many left tarnished reputations and economic failures behind hoping to make a fresh start in America.

While slavery brutally oppressed many hundreds of thousands in the late 18th century, very harsh labor conditions and early death awaited huge numbers of poor white migrants.

When Shays Rebellion, an uprising against aggressive tax and debt collection, occurred in western Massachusetts in 1786, Abigail Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson: “Ferment and commotion had brought forth an abundance of Rubbish”. Newpapers referred to the Shays insurgents as “ragamuffins of the earth”.

Isenberg traces the evolution of the terms “cracker” and “squatter”. She says the terms were shorthand for landless migrants. In early America, many poor whites disappeared into unsettled territory and would occupy land without a land title. She quotes a British officer on the subject of “crackers”: they were “great boasters”, a “lawless set of rascals on the frontier of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their place of abode”. They were recruited to be Indian fighters and they were known to be ruthless.

Isenberg says many poor whites in 19th century America lived as scavengers and vagrants. They worked as tenants and day laborers. They had no access to free soil or homesteads. They typically occupied poor quality land. Poor whites became known as “sandhillers” and “pineys” because they were consigned to the worst land.

By 1850, Isenberg says poor whites became a permanent class. She cites the infamous Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which had very negative implications for poor whites as well as for slaves. Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the majority opinion in Dred Scott, turned pedigree into a constitutional principle, finding that the Founders’ original intent was to classify members of society in terms of bloodlines and racial stock. Poor whites were way below the slaveholders, landed gentry, and aristocrats who ruled.

The term “white trash” gained widespread use in the 1850’s. Proslavery Southerners defended the low station of poor whites as natural and a result of biology. Southern elites saw the white poor as riff raff. They feared class equality and educational literacy of both blacks and poor whites.

Later in the 19th century, the term “redneck” came into wider use, followed later by “trailer trash” and “po’ white trash”. The racist actions of some poor whites during the civil rights movement gave these slurs more of a lease on life. These terms are still with us.

Over the last 100 years, pseudo-science has also played a role in justifying the mistreatment of poor whites. Eugenics divided America on the basis of good and bad blood. The rural South of poor illiterate whites were seen as the epitome of eugenic backwardness. Eugenics offered a convenient biological explanation to justify the terrible treatment of poor whites and people of color.

The exploitation of poor whites must never be used as an excuse for racism. For all people of conscience and awareness, given American history, the struggle against racism must always be a central struggle of the fight for justice. At the same time, attitudes that belittle poor whites are equally unacceptable.

I would say, to date, no political party has embraced poor whites or has advocated for them. Republican rhetoric masks their slavish devotion to corporate power and their 1% funders. I would acknowledge the Republicans have had some success in conning poor whites as they have tried to get the vote. The Democrats, on the other hand, have demonstrated cluelessness where poor whites are concerned. The Democrats have made a minimal effort to even seek that vote. Unfortunately, many liberals remain as committed to corporate power as the Republicans.

To have a chance to attract poor whites, the Democrats need to junk their corporate-friendly worldview and they need a populist message that critiques concentrated wealth and power. Too many liberal yuppies maintain an upper-middle class snobbery toward poor whites. It is no wonder the Democrats have earned a hostile reception.

Poor whites have long maintained a place of invisibility in America. Before anything can change, we all need to open our eyes and see them.

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The Puerto Rican Catastrophe – posted 12/25/2017

December 25, 2017 Leave a comment

It has now been over three months since Hurricane Maria and as we have gotten farther away from the storm, news about Puerto Rico has receded. Stories about what is happening on the island are rarer.

Lack of urgency is the best way to characterize the overall American response although the recovery task is admittedly herculean.

Sad to say but the recovery in Puerto Rico has been conducted at a turtle’s pace. The hurricane knocked out 100% of electricity, leaving 3.4 million people in the dark. So far about 65 percent of the island has regained power. This ranks as the longest power outage in American history. It is estimated that electricity will not be entirely restored until May.

This is not commensurate with the hurricane recovery effort in Texas or Florida. No site on the American homeland would have accepted such a slow hurricane response but Puerto Rico lacks the political strength to get a better result.

Along with electricity, access to clean water remains an unsolved problem for virtually all residents. This was a problem even before the hurricane. The Natural Resources Defense Council had issued a report last May showing that 99.5 percent of Puerto Ricans were served by water sources that violated the Safe Water Drinking Act. Contamination, failure to properly treat water and failure to conduct water testing were among the violations.

Since the hurricane, many Puerto Ricans have continued to report odorous, discolored and ill-tasting water flowing from their taps. Where bottled water is unavailable, water must be boiled or chlorine must be added for water to be drinkable.

An estimated 250,000 Puerto Ricans lost their homes in the hurricane. Hundreds of thousands have left the island since the storm, including 269,000 who have flown to Florida.

The government still does not know how many people died in the hurricane. Although the official government death count stood at 64, the Center for Investigative Journalism revealed at least 985 people died in the 40-day period after Hurricane Maria. A New York Times analysis found the death toll to be 1052.

It appears there has been a vast undercount. Two members of Congress, Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Ms) have requested a federal investigation by the Government Accounting Office. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello has now ordered a recount of all hurricane deaths.

The new Republican tax bill signed by President Trump particularly harms Puerto Rico. It adds a 12.5 percent tax on profits derived from intellectual property, primarily high-end manufacturing like pharmaceuticals and medical devices. These manufacturing jobs are some of the best jobs on the island.

The tax was designed to make it more expensive for companies to operate outside the United States in “foreign” jurisdictions. For tax purposes, in a legal quirk, Puerto Rico is considered a “foreign” jurisdiction although in almost all other respects it is considered legally domestic.

Puerto Rico lobbied hard to get an exemption from the 12.5 percent tax but that effort failed. At a time when Puerto Rico desperately needs economic recovery, the new tax law will make it more expensive for manufacturers to operate there. It will very likely cost Puerto Rico many good jobs it can ill afford to lose.

In Puerto Rico, over 45 percent of people live in poverty (an income of under $24,000 for a family of four), a rate that is well over twice the rate for the United States. The median household income in Puerto Rico is $19,630. That is about half the median income in our poorest state of Mississippi.

To grasp the depth of the Puerto Rican tragedy, an appreciation of history is required. The history of Puerto Rico has been hidden. For many Americans, Puerto Rico is off the radar screen. It has been separated by geography, language, culture, and ethnicity.

Polls taken after Hurricane Maria indicate that barely 50 percent of our population know that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and that its people are U.S. citizens.

Puerto Rico had been a colony of Spain. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the United States took possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, paying Spain $20 million under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. Puerto Rico was war booty and it became an American colony although it was euphemistically called a territory.

The early 20th century was an era of American imperial expansion in Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine in the background, the United States conducted a military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and a military occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. In 1917, the United States bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million. The acquisition of Puerto Rico was a legacy of colonialism.

The United States set up its own puppet government in Puerto Rico and established English as the official language even though few then knew the language. U.S. officials did not speak Spanish. The President appointed a succession of Anglo governors. No Puerto Rican became governor until 1948 and ynone was elected until 1952.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans gained full American citizenship through the Jones-Shafroth Act. Shortly after, Puerto Ricans were made subject to the military draft. More than 200,000 registered for the draft and 20,000 served in World War One. The Puerto Rican tradition of military service has continued to the present.

Puerto Rico gets no right to vote for president or for any federal office. It has no voting representative in Congress. Puerto Ricans who leave the island and go to Florida or other parts of the United States can have their votes counted in federal and state elections.

Underlying Puerto Rico’s disparate and unequal treatment is Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, commonly known as the “Territorial Clause”. The Clause reads:

“The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”

The Territorial Clause maintains Puerto Rico’s colonial status as it is classified as a territory. In assessing its debt crisis and its post-hurricane issues, it must be emphasized that Puerto Rico has had no right to self-determination. It has been essentially a plaything of the American empire. The island’s economic powerlessness is rooted in this colonial structure. The Territorial Clause controls Puerto Rico’s destiny and preempts local authority.

I would point out that there is deep division among Puerto Ricans about their self-determination. During the 20th century, there was an active movement for Puerto Rican independence. 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the death of Pedro Albizu Campos, a legendary leader of the independence movement.

Little is now remembered about the independence movement. In 1947, the U.S. government passed a law that made it illegal for Puerto Ricans to utter a word, sing a song or whistle a tune against the United States or in favor of independence. In 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to shoot their way into Blair House where President Truman was staying. Later in 1954, four members of the nationalist party, among them Lolita Lebron, staged an attack on Congress, wounding five members. President Jimmy Carter granted the four clemency in 1979 after they all served long prison terms.

It remains unclear whether Puerto Ricans prefer statehood or independence. Last June there was a plebiscite where voters chose statehood although only 23% of eligible voters cast ballots. Whether Puerto Rico becomes a state ultimately depends on Congress.

Puerto Ricans are unique in being citizens while being considered foreigners, a contradiction at the core of their identity.

When President Trump went to Puerto Rico after the hurricane, he gave himself a “10” out of 10 for hurricane response. He had previously graded himself an A+. He said, “You know what? This is not a real catastrophe. This is not like Katrina.” He famously lobbed paper towels at a crowd.

Considering Puerto Rico’s dire straits, the Administration’s casual response merits no accolades. It is now up to Congress to act. So much more needs to be done.

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Ways of Being Racist – posted 12/10/2017

December 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Racism is difficult to talk about. The label gets tossed and too often genuine conversation ends. Just mention of the word has been a showstopper. Partisans retreat to their respective corners, back to entrenched positions.

Considering the centrality of race in American life. I think we need a better understanding of how racism has operated. For all the use of the word as a label, racism is usually seen as simply bad ideas.

I would suggest that view is wrong-headed and superficial. How we in America have been racist has changed dramatically since the 18th century. If we look at racism historically, we can gain insight into how we have arrived at our present race predicament.

Racism in America did not mysteriously materialize out of the vast reservoirs of human ignorance and hate. It came out of the need to justify slavery. The beneficiaries of slavery and later Jim Crow segregation produced racist ideas because they wanted to defend themselves intellectually. Defending racism was in their material self-interest and it gave them a way to deflect from their criminal behavior.

In his book, Stamped From the Beginning, Professor Ibram X. Kendi presents a comprehensive overview of how racist ideas have changed over time. The arguments used to justify racism in early America are quite different than what we hear now.

In the 17th and 18th century, racists relied on theological and climate justification. Kendi shows how early preachers drew on the Bible, particularly Genesis, which said that black people were the children of Ham, the son of Noah, and that they were singled out to be black as the result of Noah’s curse. Here slavery was seen as a curse for sins and depraved behavior.

Climate theorists believed that black people were a product of hot climate and that they could literally turn white if they moved into cooler climate. The belief was that placed in the proper cold climate, blacks would adopt European culture, whiten their skin color and grow straight hair.

In early America, there was a nature versus nurture debate about black people. Racists blamed black people for allegedly criminal behavior and disagreed about whether blacks were inherently inferior or whether the race could be improved. Scholars debated whether blacks were a different species as racist scientists conceived of blacks as lesser animals and Blackness was seen as a physiological abnormality.

Preachers like Cotton Mather urged Africans to become obedient slaves. By obeying Mather said slaves “souls will be washed white in the blood of the lamb”. If slaves failed to be orderly servants, then Mather said they would forever welter “under intolerable blows and wounds from the Devil, their overseer”.

Blackness was associated with the Devil and whiteness became the standard of beauty. During the Salem witch trials, religious leaders preached endlessly about black devils. Accused witches were made to confess that black devils made them sign his book.

There was some disagreement among slaveholders about whether slaves could be Christians. Some slaveholders worried about seeing their slaves in heaven.

From 1776 to 1865 and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, slavery was business as usual in much of the country. Slavery was legal in all 13 colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence.

In early America, racist ideas were supported by racist laws. While Black Codes are mostly associated with the period after the Civil War, they date back to colonial America. Blacks were not allowed to vote, gather in groups for worship or learn to read and write.

Justifications for racist ideas changed in the 19th century. Racist scholars measured anatomy and the size of human skulls and they evolved the pseudo-science of phrenology. The founder of anthropology in the United States, Dr. Samuel Morton, a phrenologist, found Caucasian skulls to be larger than other races. Morton found that larger skulls equated with larger intellect.

Pseudo-science played a larger role in 19th century racism. One prominent Southern surgeon, Dr. Josiah Nott, owner of nine slaves, advanced a polygenesist theory that claimed humanity and different races originated from different lineages. Charles Darwin later took issue with Nott who had attacked evolutionary theory.

Racist ideas in the late 19th century evolved further with the development of eugenics. Eugenicists tried to prove that personality and mental traits were inherited and superior racial groups inherited superior traits.

Eugenicists were focused on promoting the idea of the purity of the white race. Kendi mentions a book published in 1916, The Passing of the Great Race, by a New York lawyer, Madison Grant. Grant had constructed a racial-ethnic ladder with Nordics (his term for Anglo-Saxons) at the top and Jews, Italians, the Irish, Russians and all non-whites on the lower rungs.

Grant theorized that world history was about the rising and falling of civilizations based on the amount of Nordic blood in each nation. Grant’s book later influenced Adolf Hitler. Hitler thanked Grant, calling his book “my Bible”.

These early eugenics theorists like Madison Grant were forerunners of newer justifiers of inequality like Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray who in 1994 produced The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Hernnstein and Murray argued that there was a cognitive difference between blacks and whites although they acknowledged some role for environment.

Hernnstein and Murray essentially saw social inequality as a result of biology. Thinking like this promoted the view that disparities around race were inherent.

More recently, the ideology of colorblindness has held sway. The assumption has been that the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible without regard to race. The problem is this ideology ignores 250 years of African American history.

Kendi shows there has been a historical struggle around how blame has been assigned for the discrimination against non-white people. Blaming the victim of discrimination has been a long-term historical pattern. As Kendi writes:

“When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for the oppression.”

From the perspective of 2017, the historical succession of racist ideas demonstrate both their stupidity and their absurdity. It seems almost unbelievable that so recently so many believed such obviously wrong ideas. Yet we live in an era when white supremacy is trying to make yet one more comeback.

It is past time that we overcome any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another group.

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Tax Avoidance, the Paradise Papers and the Republican Game Plan – posted 11/26/2017

November 26, 2017 Leave a comment

As the Republicans push to pass their tax plan, so much remains unsaid. You have to ask: why at a time of unprecedented economic inequality are the Republicans promoting a discredited trickle-down scheme that is widely seen as a massive give-away to the rich?

Greed by the super-rich is one immediate answer. The rest of us are being played for suckers.

However, I think there is a deeper context. By using taxes to balloon the federal deficit, Republicans will tie the hands of Democrats for years to come. The Democrats will be forced to address deficit reduction rather than the promotion of bold and popular programs. On the agenda will be shrinking entitlements and greatly reduced federal spending.

If this is a game of field position, the Democrats are getting outfoxed, playing deep in their own territory with little chance of scoring. Republican ball control dominates.

Fundamentally, this tax bill, in either the House or Senate incarnation, is about creating new ways for the wealthiest corporations and individuals to protect and expand their wealth. High-income people by far get the largest benefits while many middle and lower-income households will end up worse off.

The Republicans tout crumbs falling off the table as they reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent. This is a movie we have seen before. The rich get much richer and the trickle-down never trickles down.

Curiously, at the same time this spectacle is going on, we have had the release of the Paradise Papers. For those unfamiliar with the Paradise Papers, they are leaked documents which show the world’s biggest businesses, heads of state and global figures in politics, entertainment, and sports have sheltered their wealth in secretive tax havens. A German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, obtained the Paradise Papers and then shared the information with the New York Times, the Guardian, and the BBC.

Among other revelations, the Paradise Papers show extensive offshore dealings by Donald Trump’s cabinet members, advisors and donors, including Wilbur Ross, the U.S. Commerce Secretary. Through a chain of offshore investments, Ross has received substantial payments from Navigator Holdings, a firm co-owned by Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law. Ross now says he will divest in Navigator.

Among Trump insiders, Ross has not been alone in using offshore tax shelters. The Paradise Papers name Trump’s chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and SEC Chairman Jay Clayton as all having significant history with tax havens.

The Paradise Papers also show aggressive tax avoidance by multinational corporations like Nike and Apple. They show some of the biggest names in the film and TV industries protecting their wealth through offshore schemes. The worst offending tax havens are Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Singapore although they are not the only ones.

Tax avoidance is a major contributing factor in understanding why economic inequality has mushroomed not just in the United States but internationally. When vast sums of money disappear offshore, support for basic infrastructure including hospitals, roads, schools and clean air and water dries up. The Paradise Papers show England is having the same problem with this as we are in the United States.

Maybe it is stating the obvious but laws should not allow profits to be shifted away from where they are generated to another country with no taxes or a negligible tax rate.

Poverty and inequality are dramatically and adversely affected by tax avoidance. The super-rich, who absolutely can afford to pay, sleaze out of paying their fair share. By not paying, they maximize their profits while undermining the revenue needed for critical human needs.

When President Trump ran for president, he promised to address offshore tax havens and bring trillions of dollars back to the U.S.. Just on November 1, Trump reiterated this concern:

“Finally our plan will bring back trillions of dollars from offshore…that will come pouring back into our country that will be put to work and will be spent by our companies that could never get the money back for many years. Bring the money back. We’re rebuilding America.”

The concern about tax havens was short-lived. House Republicans, at the behest of the Koch brothers and other large corporations, have now effectively squashed any plan to seriously tackle tax avoidance. In their new tax bill, House Republicans have almost entirely scaled back the tax avoidance provision.

Considering that Trump, who still has not released his own taxes, and his circle have made a career of tax avoidance, this reversal can hardly be considered surprising. Any idea of a public good does not enter into Trumpworld.

It is hard to conceptualize what the loss of what Trump calls “trillions of dollars” means to us. My imagination first calls up less homelessness, universal health care including adequate opioid addiction treatment programs, and timely hurricane response unlike what has happened with Puerto Rico.

The super-rich have been great at having a flotilla of lobbyists, apologists, and paid propagandists to justify and obscure their tax evasion. Americans invariably get more upset about the poor person on food stamps than the self-dealing billionaire stashing loot in the Caymans.

It seems to be easier to hate on the poor person you see in the supermarket whom you believe to be a scammer than the billionaire who lives a luxury life completely removed from any personal frame of reference. Yet the harm perpetrated by the billionaire tax cheat is immensely worse than any food stamp fraud.

The Congressional Budget Office has stated that the Republican tax plan will instantly trigger $400 billion in automatic cuts to Medicare in the next ten years, including $25 billion in the first year after the bill is enacted. The reason is that the tax bill will increase the deficit more than $1.5 trillion.

Under the provisions of a law known as Statutory PAYGO, there must be an automatic cut in spending when Congress increases the deficit this much. Medicare will not be the only government program to face the squeeze. A wide array of other government programs will also be strangled.

Statutory PAYGO allows the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) the sole power to decide how to implement the Medicare cuts. The current director of OMB, Mick Mulvaney, is no friend of Medicare or government spending. A self-described “right-wing nutjob”, former House Freedom Caucus member, and Ayn Rand admirer, Mulvaney is a man on a mission. If he stays at OMB, it is a safe bet Mulvaney will ax Medicare as much as he can. Even if he is not there, his replacement will probably be a clone.

Democrats, progressives, independents, and moderate Republicans need to fight tooth and nail against the Republican tax plan. There is more going on here than first meets the eye. The decreased revenue from the tax changes will be used to justify cuts in essential programs for a generation. The damage will be felt far into the future.

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Looking at Mass Shootings Through a Domestic Violence Lens – posted 11/12/2017

November 12, 2017 2 comments

It is hard to keep up with all the mass shootings. There have been so many of them and they happen with such depressing regularity.

Everytown Research, an organization devoted to understanding and reducing gun violence, says that between 2009 and 2016, 156 mass shootings  occurred in the United States. Everytown defines mass shootings as incidents in which four or more people, not including the shooter, were shot and killed.

While we have been conditioned to look first for an ISIS or Al Qaeda link, the majority of mass shootings, 54%, are connected to domestic violence. The most common scenario is a toxically angry man who goes off because he has lost control over his wife or girl friend. These enraged men act out with extreme violence when the women in their lives do not submit to them.

Underlying the domestic violence is an ingrained and institutionalized prejudice against women which still pervades our culture. The devaluation of women and the idea that men are superior and have the right to control and dominate them remains rampant in American society. While there are many men who devalue women but never commit violent acts, the role of prejudice against women and misogyny in American society is insufficiently understood and addressed.

In the U.S., guns are an omnipresent tool used to intimidate women. Everytown writes that 4.5 million women have been threatened by an intimate partner with a gun. While that number seemed high to me, even lower estimates boggle the mind. Research suggests that the presence of guns in a domestic violence situation increases the likelihood that a woman will be shot and murdered by a fivefold factor. This is a dark side of gun culture that we don’t talk about.

The mass shooting in a Sutherland Springs, Texas church on November 5 in which 25 people were murdered and 20 more injured is the latest example of the domestic violence connection.  Devin Kelley had a history of hitting, kicking, and choking his wife. He had threatened her many times with loaded and unloaded guns.

In 2012, the Air Force had court-martialed Kelley for an assault on his wife and his young stepson. As part of a plea deal, Kelley admitted to hitting the infant on the head and body “with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm”. Kelley fractured the child’s skull and caused internal bleeding.

Kelley served 12 months in a military prison and he received a bad conduct discharge.

In 2013, after moving to Colorado, police charged Kelley with misdemeanor cruelty to animals. Numerous witnesses saw him beat a dog with his fists. He tackled the dog, held it down with his knees and punched it while the dog yelped. Kelley then picked up the dog by the neck, threw it down and dragged it to his camper. When the police investigated, they found the dog was undernourished.

In 2014, after his divorce, police received a report of abuse against Kelley’s new girl friend. She had sent a text to a friend that “her boyfriend was abusing her”. When the police arrived they were told by people at the house that there was no problem. The police did not arrest Kelley in that incident. Two months later, Kelley married that girl friend.

Since the church shooting, police have reported that Kelley had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law who frequently attended at that church. The police also found social media posts from Kelley that suggested a fascination with mass shootings.

Kelley would have been prohibited from buying or owning any firearms if the Air Force had reported Kelley’s conviction into a background check system. He went on to buy at least four guns in Colorado and Texas between 2014 and 2017. The police recovered an AR-15-style rifle at the church and two handguns from Kelley’s car.

In our collective societal response to mass shootings like Sutherland Springs, we seem to turn off our critical faculties, as if we are infected by an intellectual paralysis. In the face of successive mass shootings and decades of government inaction, we have been rendered mute and powerless.

We need to overcome the idea that nothing can be done to stop gun violence.

For starters, we need a much-improved, universal, national background check system that does not allow loopholes. Even the NRA admits that seven million records are missing from the system. This includes a large number of people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. Devin Kelley was just one of many who have evaded the background check system.

Whether a person buys at a licensed gun dealer, a gun show, or in a private sale, there must be a background check. There is a body of persuasive public health evidence showing that closing the unlicensed gun loophole will save many lives.

It remains far too easy for domestic violence abusers, convicted felons, the seriously mentally ill and even people on terrorist watch lists to obtain firearms. Now, in most states, gun purchasers can avoid background checks by buying from unlicensed sellers online. That is wrong.

According to Everytown, in 42% of mass shootings, the shooter had exhibited warning signs prior to the shooting. The warning signs were suicidal ideation, homicidal threats or other erratic behaviors. There were no shortage of red flags around Devin Kelley but family, acquaintances, and law enforcement missed the warning signs.

Rather than a simple mental health diagnosis, I think we need to look harder at the behavioral risk of dangerousness. It is extremely hard to predict how a person will act but a history of violent behavior is a better predictor of future violence than mental illness.

Possibly we should reform our laws around restraining orders. California, Oregon and Washington have passed Extreme Risk Protection Orders. Under these laws, family members and law enforcement can petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from individuals in crisis, especially those at a dangerously-elevated risk of suicide.

Additionally,  we should be advocating for renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004. These are weapons designed to maximize lethality in military combat and should not be available to civilians. The AR-15 was the weapon of choice for mass shooters in Aurora, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, and Sutherland Springs.

The regulation  of assault weapons, high capacity magazines and bump stocks is not an infringement on Second Amendment rights. No constitutional right is absolute and all are subject to reasonable regulation. Assault weapons have proven to be a major threat to public health and safety in this nation.

The fact that the gun lobby objects strenuously to every effort to regulate the industry as heading down some slippery slope shows evidence of extreme  paranoia more than rational thought. As with any legislative reform,  every  proposed gun control measure should be evaluated on the merits.

Seeing mass shootings as a product of a small number of mentally deranged individuals misses the context of how women are treated in American society and how they become victims of male violence. The mass shootings are not inevitable events. If we had the political will as a society to address how women are devalued and discriminated against, we could greatly reduce the frequency of tragedies like Sutherland Springs where the link between domestic violence and mass shootings is readily apparent.

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Turning Back The Clock on Contraception – posted 10/29/2017

October 29, 2017 Leave a comment

It is utterly backward that birth control has reemerged as a controversial issue. For the last 50 years, there was no controversy about it. Cost has been a factor but its need was not widely questioned. 86% of Americans support policies that make it easier, not harder, to get birth control.

So how can it be that the Trump Administration proposes rules that will make it harder for many women, especially the low income, to access birth control?

It is a slap in the face of modernity, as well as women.

In early October, the Trump Administration released new rules that allow employers more exemptions from Obamacare’s contraception mandate. Employers can now opt out of the requirement to provide contraception if they have “religious” or “moral” reasons.

Under the Affordable Care Act, company health care plans had to cover contraception at no cost to the insured. Obamacare required that health insurance plans fully cover preventive health benefits for women.

The Trump Administration rule change will adversely affect hundreds of thousands of women. The National Women’s Law Center has stated that as of September 2017, 62.4 million women had insurance that covered contraception without having to pay out-of-pocket. There will be plenty of women, given economic realities, who will not be able to afford birth control, whether birth control pills, IUDs’ or other methods.

One study found that the Obamacare contraception mandate saved women $1.4 billion in 2013 in the cost of birth control. I think that gives a ballpark figure for the yearly economic value of the contraception mandate.The Kaiser Family Foundation found that under the mandate the percentage of privately insured women who paid out-of-pocket for contraception dropped from 20% to 4%.

Blowing a hole in the contraception mandate by allowing more exemptions effectively guarantees less access to birth control and more unplanned pregnancies. Contrary to Trump Administration assertions, there will be a widespread impact.

In May, Trump had opened the door to an attack on birth control when he signed an executive order directing his administration “to address conscience-based objections” to covering birth control. This came in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby which granted corporations with a “closely held” ownership structure the ability to opt out of the contraception mandate.

The new Trump rules do not define the basis for moral objections to contraception. The vagueness will allow all kinds of entities – public and private – to assert their personal objection to birth control. These entities could be employers, insurance plans, universities, or individuals. Under the Trump rules, these entities would have no obligation to notify the government if they stopped providing contraception coverage. They would only have to notify their employees.

This is much different from the Obamacare rules where companies with a religious objection had to notify the government as part of the accommodation.

The Trump rules use religious liberty as a license to discriminate against women. The employer’s religious beliefs are granted a higher value than their employee’s right to preventive health care service. The rules are shockingly anti-worker. They also raise constitutional questions about separation of church and state.

It is easy to take the benefits of birth control for granted. Just to be able to plan when to have children is immensely important. Family planning goes hand in hand with school, work and career planning. There is also the human benefit of having a sexual life without the constant fear of pregnancy when that is not desired.

In this context, it must be mentioned that there are an estimated one million women who use contraception for medical reasons. For example, the pill is used to prevent and treat endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome as well as treatment for painful periods, a condition called dysmenorrhea. The Trump rules do not account for women who have been prescribed birth control for non-contraceptive medical reasons.

One question that jumps out: why is the Trump Administration on its anti-birth control kick? I do not think it is a mystery. It ties in to the political marriage of strange bedfellows. You have The Donald who is a graduate of the Roger Ailes-Bill O’Reilly-Harvey Weinstein School of Sexual Predation and you have the far, far right that includes fierce anti-birth control zealots who are inspired by A Handmaid’s Tale. These folks see birth control access as encouraging risky sex and promiscuity.

Talk about an unholy alliance!

Trump made the calculation that he needs the anti-birth control reactionaries. They are part of his base and with the new rules, he is throwing them some red meat. As crazy as it may seem, the anti-birth control fringe has embedded itself in the Trump Administration, especially Health and Human Services.

Trump has systematically filled critical Administration positions with individuals who have had long track records opposing women’s health and supporting junk science. He hired Katy Talento as Domestic Policy Counsel to the White House. Talento believes birth control causes miscarriages and abortions. Trump made Teresa Manning the Title X National Family Planning Overseer. Manning, a former lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee claimed in an interview with WBUR that “contraception doesn’t work” and she stated on C-SPAN that she does not believe the federal government should run family planning programs. The top Spokesperson for Health and Human Services, Charmaine Yoest, who spent years as an anti-abortion extremist, has supported phony claims that abortion causes breast cancer. Valerie Huber, Chief of Staff for Don Wright, the Acting Secretary of Health and Human Services, is an anti-sex education activist. She was CEO of Ascend, formerly known as the National Abstinence Education Association.

Since so many of the Trump appointees come out of the hardcore anti-abortion movement, you might think that anti-choicers would support contraception. After all, contraception is the best tool against conception and abortion. However, you would be wrong if you drew that conclusion. For these flat earthers, contraception is the devil’s workshop. There is a fringe in the anti-abortion movement that is simply anti-sex.

The president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Dr. Haywood Brown, nailed it when he said the Trump Administration was “focused on turning back the clock on women’s health”.

The ACLU, the National Women’s Law Center, California, Washington, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts have all filed suit against the Trump birth control rules. Opponents to the rule have strong substantive and procedural grounds to object. Hopefully, the courts will stop this.

in 2017, it seems unbelievable to me that we still have to fight for birth control – but we do.

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