Friday, October 31, 2014

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reza Aslan’s atheism problem: “Fundamentalist” atheists aren’t the issue, apologists for religions are

From Salon:  http://www.salon.com/2014/10/25/reza_aslans_atheism_problem_fundamentalist_atheists_arent_the_issue_apologists_for_religions_are/

Major religions all contain macabre fables, explicit injunctions for vile behavior no civilzed person should accept

Saturday, Oct 25, 2014

Bill Maher’s recent monologue on “Real Time” about the failure of liberals to speak out about the routine atrocities and violations of human rights carried out in the name of religion in the Muslim world has unleashed a torrent of commentary, much of it from progressives advocating more, not less, tolerance of Islam.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who sided with Ben Affleck against Maher in a follow-up segment a few days later, calls ISIS rebels, in an op-ed, “barbarians” who “give all Islam a bad name,” and asks us to take into account the religion’s diversity, lest we slip into “Islamophobic bigotry.” Fareed Zakaria, in his Washington Post column, cautions us to recall that Islam, Christianity and Judaism once peacefully coexisted, but acknowledges that Islam suffers from a “cancer” – extremism that incites acts of terrorism. This he views, though, as a problem of “Islam today.” (He neglects to point out that in the Muslim-dominated countries where this peaceful coexistence occurred, Christians and Jews suffered humiliating second-rate dhimmi status, unequal legally or socially to Muslims.) Writing on Al Jazeera English, Lana Asfour lauds Affleck for calling out Maher’s “racism” and espies, in the comedian’s treatment of Islam, an “overriding agenda” aimed at justifying the “past, present, and future mistakes” of U.S. foreign policy.

One pundit in particular, though, has busied himself opining on Maher and nonbelievers in general — Reza Aslan, Islam’s most prominent apologist of late. Delivered via multiple media outlets, his remarks, brimming with condescension, tinged with arrogance and laden with implicit insults to thinking people, deserve special scrutiny for one main reason: among well-intentioned liberals who don’t know much about religion, his words carry weight.

In a New York Times editorial, Aslan accused Maher and other nonbelievers of “exhibiti[ing] an inability to understand religion outside of its absolutist connotations.” Such folk, in his telling, unjustly “scour holy texts for bits of savagery and point to extreme examples of religious bigotry, of which there are too many, to generalize about the causes of oppression throughout the world.” They fail to grasp, in his view, that “religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices.”

Yet Aslan accuses the benighted critics of religion of a far more grievous misapprehension: the assumption that words mean what they actually mean. Here I’ll quote him at length.
“It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives. . . .  After all, scripture is meaningless without interpretation.  The abiding nature of scripture rests not so much in its truth claims as it does in its malleability, its ability to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires. . . If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in your scriptures to justify your beliefs. If you are a peaceful, democratic feminist, you will also find justification in the scriptures for your point of view.”
Now we have to stop and ponder what we are being sold here. Aslan is essentially taking a postmodernist, Derrida-esque scalpel to “scripture” and eviscerating it of objective content. This might pass muster in the college classroom these days, but what of all those ISIS warriors unschooled in French semiotic analysis who take their holy book’s admonition to do violence literally? As they rampage and behead their way through Syria and Iraq, ISIS fighters know they have the Koran on their side – a book they believe to be inerrant and immutable, the final Word of God, and not at all “malleable.” Their holy book backs up jihad, suicide attacks (“martyrdom”), beheadings, even taking captive women as sex slaves. This is not surprising; after all, the prophet Muhammad was a warrior who spread Islam by the sword in a dark, turbulent time in history. (Christianity’s propagation had, in contrast, much to do with the Roman emperor Constantine’s fourth-century conversion and subsequent decriminalization of the faith.)

Continue reading at:  http://www.salon.com/2014/10/25/reza_aslans_atheism_problem_fundamentalist_atheists_arent_the_issue_apologists_for_religions_are/

Woman Executed By Iran After Killing Her Rapist


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Apocalypse Now: Seriously, It's Time for a Major Rethink About Liberal and Progressive Politics

From Alternet:  http://www.alternet.org/activism/apocalypse-now-seriously-it-time-major-rethink-about-liberal-and-progressive-politics

We are losing badly to the corporate state. Here's what we need to do.

By Don Hazen October 25, 2014

As the editor of AlterNet for 20 years, I have read and seen the entire range of horrendous and growing problems we face as a society and a planet virtually every day. It is not just climate change, or ISIL, or Ferguson, or poverty and homelessness, or more misogynistic murdering of women, or the Democrats about to lose the Senate as Obama gets more unpopular. It is much, much more. Every day, it passes by before my eyes. At AlterNet, there are no issue silos—there is just the open faucet of depressing political information coming and going every hour of every day (with the occasional story of success and inspiration). 

So I am sorry to share my deep-seated opinion, which should jibe with anyone who is paying attention. After decades of engagement in progressive politics and media, it is very clear to me: we progressives, liberals, common-sense people, are losing badly to the conservative business state, the tyranny of massively expanding tech companies, theocratic right-wing forces and pervasive militarism, home and abroad. By virtually every measure, things are getting worse. And things are trending much, much worse in ways we can easily measure, like inequality, climate, militarization of police forces, etc., and in ways that are more psychological and emotional.

Americans are very pessimistic: 76 percent of respondents in a Wall Street Journal poll did not feel confident that their children’s generation will have a better life than theirs. That’s up from 60 percent in 2007. Optimism for Americans peaked in 2001. The percentage of American adults who believe the country is on the wrong track jumped eight percentage points just this summer, to 71 percent, the WSJ poll found.

And Americans' dark views of the future are rational, as their lives have become so much more difficult and depressing. People are working longer hours, working far past previous retirement age—if they can retire at all. Many Americans do not take vacations. And many Americans of all ages can't find good jobs, or can only find low-paying and often part-time work, which causes their lifestyles to plummet. College graduates are burdened with heavy debt.

Younger generations know that the perhaps romantic notion of the American Dream, for most people, lies in the trash bin. Over the past 15 years there was more than a 50 percent increase in people thinking there is a lack of opportunity in America (it is now just about half of all Americans). And 59 percent of Americans believe the American Dream is impossible to achieve for most people.

In terms of inequality, the Huffington Post wrote: "more than 45 million people, or 14.5 percent of all Americans, lived below the poverty line last year, the  Census Bureau reported.…The annual income threshold for being counted as living in poverty was $11,490 last year for a person and $23,550 for a family of four." 

Poverty is particularly dire for single mothers: A third of all families headed by single women were in poverty last year—that's 15.6 million such households. The black poverty rate was 27.2 percent.… More than 11 million black Americans lived below the poverty level last year. About 42.5 percent of the households headed by single black women were in poverty. The Hispanic poverty rate was 23.5 percent.”

The Long March Toward Conservative Corporate Dominance

Continue reading at:  http://www.alternet.org/activism/apocalypse-now-seriously-it-time-major-rethink-about-liberal-and-progressive-politics

Thomas Frank: “We are such losers”

From Salon:  http://www.salon.com/2014/10/26/thomas_frank_we_are_such_losers/

Liberals yearn to believe in post-ideological blank slates -- and get disappointed every time. Will we ever learn?

Sunday, Oct 26, 2014

That we are living through an endless repeat of the 1970s is becoming more apparent all the time. Nostalgia and retro culture burn as brightly today as they did in the era of “Happy Days” and “American Graffiti,” while distrust and suspicion of government hover at near-Watergate levels. Disaster dreams are everywhere, just as they were in the days of “The Towering Inferno” and Three Mile Island. The culture wars, the 1970s’ No. 1 gift to American politics, still drag on and on, while the New Right, the decade’s other great political invention, effortlessly rejuvenates itself. Jerry Brown is governor of California again. The Kansas City Royals are a good team.

No reminiscence of that decade of malaise would be complete without mentioning Jimmy Carter, the president who—fairly or not—will be forever associated with national drift and decline and all the other horrors that were eventually swept away by the Reagan magisterium. Indeed, comparing the hapless Carter to whoever currently leads the Democratic Party remains a powerful shibboleth for American conservatives, and in 2011 and 2012 Republicans indulged in this favorite simile without hesitation.

I pretty much ignored the Carter-Obama comparison in those days because it was so manifestly empty—a partisan insult based on nothing but the lousy economy faced by both Carter and Obama as well as the recurring problem of beleaguered American embassies in the Muslim world. (Get it? Benghazi=Tehran!) More important for Republican purposes was the memory that Jimmy Carter lost his re-election campaign, which they creatively merged with their hopes that Obama would lose, too. Other than that, the comparison had little connection to actual facts; it was a waste of trees and precious pixels.

What has changed my mind about the usefulness of the comparison is my friend Rick Perlstein’s vast and engrossing new history of the ’70s, “The Invisible Bridge.” The book’s main subject is the rise of Ronald Reagan, but Perlstein’s detailed description of Carter’s run for the presidency in 1976 evokes more recent events so startlingly that the comparison with Obama is impossible to avoid. After talking over the subject with Perlstein (watch this space for the full interview), I am more startled by the similarities than ever.

In 1976, when Carter shocked the political world by beating a field of better-known politicians for the Democratic presidential nomination, the essence of his appeal was pure idealism—idealism without ideology, even. He presented himself, Perlstein writes, as an “antipolitician,” a figure of reconciliation who could restore our best qualities after the disasters of Vietnam and Watergate.

Jimmy Carter’s actual politics were ambiguous, however, in a way that should be very familiar. His speechwriter James Fallows wrote in 1979 that he initially signed up with the candidate out of a hope that he “might look past the tired formulas of left and right and offer something new.” As with Barack Obama, who promised to bring a post-partisan end to Washington squabbling, Jimmy Carter’s idealism was not a matter of policies or political ideas but rather of the candidate as a person, a transcendent figure of humility and uprightness.

Continue reading at:  http://www.salon.com/2014/10/26/thomas_frank_we_are_such_losers/

More Cities Are Making It Illegal To Hand Out Food To The Homeless

From NPR:  http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/10/22/357846415/more-cities-are-making-it-illegal-to-hand-out-food-to-the-homeless

If you don't have a place to live, getting enough to eat clearly may be a struggle. And since homelessness in the U.S. isn't going away and is even rising in some cities, more charitable groups and individuals have been stepping up the past few years to share food with these vulnerable folks in their communities.

But just as more people reach out to help, cities are biting back at those hands feeding the homeless.
According to a report released Monday by the National Coalition for the Homeless, 21 cities have passed measures aimed at restricting the people who feed the homeless since January 2013. In that same time, similar legislation was introduced in more than 10 cities. Combined, these measures represent a 47 percent increase in the number of cities that have passed or introduced legislation to restrict food sharing since the coalition last counted in 2010.

The latest city to crack down is Fort Lauderdale, Fla. According to the Sun Sentinel, the city's commissioners passed a measure early Wednesday that will require feeding sites to be more than 500 feet away from each other, with only one allowed per city block. They'll also have to be at least 500 feet from residential properties.

Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the coalition and the editor of the report, says that as cities have felt more pressure to prioritize economic development and tourism, they've decided that food sharing programs — especially those that happen in public spaces and draw dozens, if not hundreds of people — are problematic.

"We consider measures like the one in Fort Lauderdale to be criminalizing being homeless or helping the homeless," says Stoops.

Cities like Fort Lauderdale aren't throwing people in jail for feeding the homeless or being homeless. 
But often, they're creating more ways to impose fines.

And yet, Stoops argues that the measures will ultimately be ineffective in addressing the real problem: homelessness itself.

"Cities' hope is that restricting sharing of food will somehow make [the] homeless disappear and go away," Stoops tells The Salt. "But I can promise you that even if these ordinances are adopted, it's not going to get rid of homelessness."

Continue reading at:  http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/10/22/357846415/more-cities-are-making-it-illegal-to-hand-out-food-to-the-homeless

Missiles of ISIS May Pose Peril for Aircrews in Iraq

From The New York Times:  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/27/world/middleeast/missiles-of-isis-may-pose-peril-for-aircrews.html?_r=0

Monday, October 27, 2014

Invasion of the Data Snatchers


Naomi Klein: 'Grassroots Movement From Below' vs. 'Business-as-Usual'

From Common Dreams:  http://www.commondreams.org/news/2014/10/16/naomi-klein-grassroots-movement-below-vs-business-usual

Following award of prominent literary prize in Canada, author and activist says individuals have done much to respond to climate change — now it's time for government and industry to do the same.

by Jon Queally
Published onThursday, October 16, 2014 by  Common Dreams


Author and activist Naomi Klein was awarded Canada's top annual prize for non-fiction writing this week, the Hilary Weston Prize presented by the Writers' Trust of Canada, for her recently published book, 'This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.'

According to the citation offered by the jurors:
Klein’s This Changes Everything is a ground-breaking work on how climate change changes everything. Written with an elegant blend of science, statistics, field reports and personal insight, it does not paralyze but buoys the reader. The book's exploration of climate change from the perspective of how capitalism functions produces fresh insights and its examination of the interconnectedness between our relationship with nature and the creation of better, fairer societies presents a radical proposal. Klein’s urgency and outrage is balanced by meticulous documentation and passionate argument. Heart and mind go hand in hand in this magisterial response to a present crisis.
Klein admitted being quite surprised by the award—saying from the podium that "this wasn't suppose to happen." Directly after receiving the award, the author explained the nature of her surprise to Brian Bethune at MacLean's by saying, “The book is a really radical thesis and this is an establishment prize.” Hilary Weston is a former liutenant governor of Ontario and is married to Galen Weston, who runs a food and retail empire in the country. The family is recognized as the second-wealthiest in Canada.

”I suppose I have [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper to thank for the book’s success," Klein told Bethune. "Every day, he tells Canadians they have to choose between economic prosperity and environmental and climatic protection, and Canadians know that’s not true. They know they don’t have to make that choice. But we do have to talk about change; we need this conversation.”
In a post-award interview with CBC Books, Klein said that perhaps the award would allow "even people who disagree with my politics" to engage with the book. "For me, I want the book to stimulate debate, I don't just want the book to entrench people's positions," she said.

In a subsequent televised interview with the CBC's Andrew Nichols on Wednesday, Klein said that while it was very nice to be recognized for her writing and the quality of the work—the prize is decided by a jury of writers—she thinks the real strength of the book, and readers' attraction to it, ultimately hinges on its subject matter.

What the book is really calling for, explained Klein, is having a more "strategic economy" in which the sectors that are fueling climate change—with special focus on the fossil fuel industry—are wound down and the sectors that have lesser negative impacts on the planet's natural systems are revved up. "We know what we need to do in the face of this crisis," she said. "It's just that we have an economic system that seems to be locking us into this one particular road. So we need to talk about that system, not just the carbon."

And when Nichols asked if she was essentially advocating for a new economic system, Klein quickly answered, "I am."

Continue reading at:  http://www.commondreams.org/news/2014/10/16/naomi-klein-grassroots-movement-below-vs-business-usual

As Casualties Mount, Scientists Say Global Warming Has Been "Hugely Underestimated"

From Truth Out:  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26909-as-casualties-mount-scientists-say-global-warming-has-been-hugely-underestimated

By Dahr JamailMonday, 20 October 2014

As we look across the globe this month, the signs of a continued escalation of the impacts of runaway anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) continue to increase, alongside a drumbeat of fresh scientific studies confirming their connection to the ongoing human geo-engineering project of emitting carbon dioxide at ever-increasing rates into the atmosphere.

A major study recently published in New Scientist found that "scientists may have hugely underestimated the extent of global warming because temperature readings from southern hemisphere seas were inaccurate," and said that ACD is "worse than we thought" because it is happening "faster than we realized."

As has become predictable now, as evidence of increasing ACD continues to mount, denial and corporate exploitation are accelerating right along with it.

The famed Northwest Passage is now being exploited by luxury cruise companies. Given the ongoing melting of the Arctic ice cap, a company recently announced a 900-mile, 32-day luxury cruise there, with fares starting at $20,000, so people can luxuriate while viewing the demise of the planetary ecosystem.

This, while even mainstream scientists now no longer view ACD in the future tense, but as a reality that is already well underway and severely impacting the planet.

It is good that even the more conservative scientists have come aboard the reality train, because a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-led (NOAA) study published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society has provided yet more evidence linking ACD with extreme heat events.

To provide perspective on how far along we are regarding runaway ACD, another recent study shows that the planet's wildlife population is less than half the size it was four decades ago. The culprits are both ACD and unsustainable human consumption, coupling to destroy habitats faster than previously thought, as biodiversity loss has now reached "critical levels," according to the report. More than half of the vertebrate population on the planet has been annihilated in just four decades.

Let that sink in for a moment before reading further.

Continue reading at:  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26909-as-casualties-mount-scientists-say-global-warming-has-been-hugely-underestimated

Friday, October 24, 2014

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shocking New Report: Superrich Have Grabbed Half the World's Assets

From Alternet:  http://www.alternet.org/economy/shocking-new-report-superrich-have-grabbed-half-worlds-assets

They're eyeing the other half.

By> Lynn Stuart Parramore October 21, 2014

According to a new report, the richest one percent have got their mitts on almost half the world's assets. Think that’s the end of the story? Think again. This is only the beginning.

The “ Global Annual Wealth Report,” freshly released by investment giant Credit Suisse, analyzes the shocking trend of growing wealth inequality around the world. What the researchers find is that global wealth has increased every year since 2008, and that personal wealth seems to be rising at the fastest rate ever recorded, much of it driven by strong equity markets. But the benefits of this growth have largely been channeled to those who are already affluent. While the restaurant workers in America struggled to achieve wages of $10 an hour for their labor, those invested in equities saw their wealth soar without lifting a finger. So it goes around the world.

The bottom half of the world’s people now own less than 1 percent of total wealth, and they’re struggling to hold onto even that minuscule portion. On the other hand, the wealthiest 10 percent have accumulated a staggering 87 percent of global assets. The top percentile has 48.2 percent of the world wealth. For now.

One of the scary things about the wealth of the supperich is what French economist Thomas Piketty pointed out in his best-selling book, Capital in the 21st Century. Once they’ve got a big chunk of wealth, their share will get bigger even if they sit by and do absolutely nothing. Piketty sums up this economic reality in a simple and horrifying formula: r > g. 

Basically, this means that when rate of return on wealth is greater than the overall rate of growth of the economy, as it has nearly always been throughout history, the rich will grow inevitably richer and the poor poorer unless there is some kind of intervention, like higher taxes on wealth, for example. If r is less than g, the assets of the super-wealthy will erode, but if r is greater than g, you eventually get the explosion of gigantic inherited fortunes and dynasties.

This is happening now: If you look at the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in America, you see a lot more inherited fortunes in the upper ranks than you did a couple of decades ago, when the policies that held inequality at bay began to get dismantled. In today’s top 10, there are more scions of the Walton family than entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. These people have essentially done nothing of value for society, and yet their undue influence shapes our political landscape with the wave of a wad of cash. 

Continue reading at:  http://www.alternet.org/economy/shocking-new-report-superrich-have-grabbed-half-worlds-assets

New York Times Columnist Apologizes For Attending Fundraiser For Anti-Gay Legal Group

From Media Matters:  http://mediamatters.org/blog/2014/10/22/new-york-times-columnist-apologizes-for-attendi/201268

Carlos Maza & Joe Strupp October 22, 2014

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat apologized for appearing at a fundraising event for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an extreme anti-gay legal group working to criminalize homosexuality.
On October 16, Douthat spoke at "The Price of Citizenship: Losing Religious Freedom in America," an event held by ADF and aimed at drawing attention to a number of popular right-wing horror stories about the threat LGBT equality poses to religious liberty. Douthat spoke alongside radio host Hugh Hewitt and the Benham brothers, who are notorious for their history of extreme anti-gay, anti-choice, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. The event ended with explicit solicitations for donations to support ADF's legal work.

As Media Matters noted, ADF is one of the most extreme anti-gay legal groups in the country, fighting against even basic legal protections for LGBT people and working internationally to repress LGBT human rights, including supporting Belize's draconian law criminalizing gay sex.

On Wednesday, Douthat explained that he did not know ADF's event was a fundraiser and said he plans to decline the honorarium he received from the event.

"I was not aware in advance that this event was a fundraiser and had I known, I would not have agreed to participate," he said in a statement issued to Media Matters through the Times Wednesday. "I was invited by an events organizing group, not by ADF directly. I understood this to be a public conversation about religious liberty. This is my fault for not doing my due diligence, and I will be declining the honorarium."

Douthat has previously lamented the opposition to Arizona's SB 1062, a law that would have allowed business owners to refuse service to gay customers and that was largely orchestrated by ADF.
"Douthat's helping ADF raise money is disturbing," said Richard Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C. "I am not inclined to jump all over the Times for it, as they feature a range of columnists and a columnist needs some room to say and do the wrong thing, and then be duly criticized for it. But ADF does not merely engage in polite disagreement. It is relentless in its attacks on equal protection of gay people and families. If this is the company that Douthat is happy keeping, it says unfortunate things about him."

Times officials declined to comment.

The Top 1% Own... Half

From Common Dreams:  http://www.commondreams.org/news/2014/10/14/top-1-own-half

While wealthiest top one percent own nearly fifty percent of all world's assets, the entire bottom half of the global population hold less than one percent of the wealth, new financial analysis shows

by Jon Queally
Tuesday, October 14, 2014 Common Dreams

The top one percent of the wealthiest people on the planet own nearly fifty percent of the world's assets while the bottom fifty percent of the global population combined own less than one percent of the world's wealth.

Those are the findings of an annual report by the investment firm Credit Suisse released Tuesday—the 2014 Global Wealth Report (pdf)—which shows that global economic inequality has surged since the financial collapse of 2008.

According to the report, "global wealth has grown to a new record, rising by $20.1 trillion between mid-2013 and mid-2014, an increase of 8.3%, to reach $263 trillion – more than twice the $117 trillion recorded for the year 2000."

Though the rate of this  wealth creation has been particularly fast over the last year—the fastest annual growth recorded since the pre-crisis year of 2007—the report notes that the benefits of this overall growth have flowed disproportionately to the already wealthy. And the report reveals that as of mid-2014, "the bottom half of the global population own less than 1% of total wealth. In sharp contrast, the richest decile hold 87% of the world’s wealth, and the top percentile alone account for 48.2% of global assets.”

Campaigners at Oxfam International, which earlier this put out their own report on global inequality (pdf), said the Credit Suisse report, though generally serving separate aims, confirms what they also found in terms of global inequality.

“These figures give more evidence that inequality is extreme and growing, and that economic recovery following the financial crisis has been skewed in favour of the wealthiest. In poor countries, rising inequality means the difference between children getting the chance to go to school and sick people getting life saving medicines,” Oxfam’s head of inequality Emma Seery, told the Guardian in response to the latest study.

In addition to giving an overall view of trends in global wealth, the authors of the Credit Suisse  gave special attention to the issue of inequality in this year's report, noting the increasing level of concern surrounding the topic. "The changing distribution of wealth is now one of the most widely discussed and controversial of topics," they write, "Not least owing to [French economist] Thomas Piketty’s recent account of long-term trends around inequality. We are confident that the depth of our data will make a valuable contribution to the inequality debate."
According to the report:
In almost all countries, the mean wealth of the top decile (i.e. the wealthiest 10% of adults) is more than ten times median wealth. For the top percentile (i.e. the wealthiest 1% of adults), mean wealth exceeds 100 times the median wealth in many countries and can approach 1000 times the median in the most unequal nations. This has been the case throughout most of human history, with wealth ownership often equating with land holdings, and wealth more often acquired via inheritance or conquest rather than talent or hard work. However, a combination of factors caused wealth inequality to trend downwards in high income countries during much of the 20th century, suggesting that a new era had emerged. That downward trend now appears to have stalled, and posssibly gone into reverse.
 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Do Democrats want to fix inequality? Or just complain about it?

From The Guardian UK:  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/20/democrats-inequality-midterm-victory-young-minority-voters

If progressives think they’ve got any chance at midterm victory, it’s time to focus on dramatic solutions for young and minority voters – before it’s too late

theguardian.com, Monday 20 October 2014

On Friday, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen warned that “income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years”. On Saturday, Senator Elizabeth Warren called for federal student loan refinancing, and declared: “The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it.” On Sunday, along with a secret memo that threatened “crushing” defeats, there was the headline on the front page of the New York Times: “Black Vote Seen as Last Hope for Democrats to Hold Senate”.

Inequality: it’s all anybody can talk about ... except Democrats on the campaign trail who, with two weeks before Election Day, desperately need to turn out the very people so disproportionately affected by it – young and minority voters.

Sure, the teacher-backed Super-Pacs are hitting Republicans from Arkansas and North Carolina to Hawaii and back again for wanting to “shut down” public education. Yes, ignoring affordable housing is the stuff attack ads are made of.

But housing and education are issues of inequality that have solutions, not just stump-speech lines or YouTube-ready complaints. And if Democrats have any hope left in the midterms, they cannot be this shamefully muted on bold progressive policies that could dramatically improve the lives of voters who just happen to hold the keys to a majority of the United States Senate.

Barack Obama’s neglect on foreclosure has been well-documented. The housing crisis turned countless former homeowners into renters and, now, into would-be voters in dire straits. More than four in 10 of very low-income US households have no access to subsidized housing, and are instead paying more than 50% of their income in rent, living in horrific conditions or both. We have about as much public housing today as we did in the mid-1970s, losing 10,000 units per year, even though the US population is now 47% bigger.

An easy fix would be to simply expand the stock of affordable housing, especially units available to low- and moderate-income households. And believe it or not, the Obama administration has the unilateral authority to do so, without Congress. The National Housing Trust Fund, a program created during the second Bush administration, was never actually funded. But the National Low Income Housing Coalition believes we could end homelessness in America in 10 years if it was funded now. So what are Democrats so afraid of?

Money for the fund is supposed to come from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but their regulator – the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) – has been preventing the cash from flowing. Now Fannie and Freddie are profitable, and putting all of those profits towards deficit reduction, instead of setting aside a small portion for people who need somewhere to live.

Continue reading at:  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/20/democrats-inequality-midterm-victory-young-minority-voters

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Monday, October 20, 2014

Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not O.K.

From The New York Times:  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/20/opinion/paul-krugman-amazons-monopsony-is-not-ok.html

Amazon.com, the giant online retailer, has too much power, and it uses that power in ways that hurt America.

O.K., I know that was kind of abrupt. But I wanted to get the central point out there right away, because discussions of Amazon tend, all too often, to get lost in side issues.

For example, critics of the company sometimes portray it as a monster about to take over the whole economy. Such claims are over the top — Amazon doesn’t dominate overall online sales, let alone retailing as a whole, and probably never will. But so what? Amazon is still playing a troubling role.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s defenders often digress into paeans to online bookselling, which has indeed been a good thing for many Americans, or testimonials to Amazon customer service — and in case you’re wondering, yes, I have Amazon Prime and use it a lot. But again, so what? The desirability of new technology, or even Amazon’s effective use of that technology, is not the issue. After all, John D. Rockefeller and his associates were pretty good at the oil business, too — but Standard Oil nonetheless had too much power, and public action to curb that power was essential.

And the same is true of Amazon today.

If you haven’t been following the recent Amazon news: Back in May a dispute between Amazon and Hachette, a major publishing house, broke out into open commercial warfare. Amazon had been demanding a larger cut of the price of Hachette books it sells; when Hachette balked, Amazon began disrupting the publisher’s sales. Hachette books weren’t banned outright from Amazon’s site, but Amazon began delaying their delivery, raising their prices, and/or steering customers to other publishers.

You might be tempted to say that this is just business — no different from Standard Oil, back in the days before it was broken up, refusing to ship oil via railroads that refused to grant it special discounts. But that is, of course, the point: The robber baron era ended when we as a nation decided that some business tactics were out of line. And the question is whether we want to go back on that decision.

Continue reading at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/20/opinion/paul-krugman-amazons-monopsony-is-not-ok.html
Does Amazon really have robber-baron-type market power? When it comes to books, definitely. Amazon overwhelmingly dominates online book sales, with a market share comparable to Standard Oil’s share of the refined oil market when it was broken up in 1911. Even if you look at total book sales, Amazon is by far the largest player.

Pentagon: Global Warming Poses ‘Immediate Risk’ To National Security

From Think Progress:  http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/10/14/3579338/pentagon-global-warming-national-security/

Posted on

In terms of U.S. defense strategy, climate change is a “threat multiplier” that can worsen national security problems such as terrorism and infectious disease spread, according to a new Pentagon report released Monday.

 The 20-page “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap” said the U.S. Department of Defense is “already beginning to see” some of the impacts of sea level rise, changing precipitation patterns, rising global temperatures, and increased extreme weather — four key symptoms of global warming. These symptoms have the potential to “intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict” and will likely lead to “food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe,” the report said.
 
Because of uncertainty surrounding just how bad these problems will be in the future, the report calls for a proactive defense strategy — one which will require “thinking ahead and planning for a wide range of contingencies.”

“Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to defend the nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security,” the report reads. “Weather has always affected military operations, and as the climate changes, the way we execute operations may be altered or constrained.”

The report in its entirety can be found here.

Monday’s report is far from the first time the U.S. Department of Defense has warned of the risks climate change poses to national security. The military has long shown that it understands the realities of climate change, releasing reports warning of altered natural disaster response and drought leading to conflicts over food and water. The Pentagon has also released an entire report solely on its strategy to address Arctic melting, which is allowing ships to access more of the Arctic Ocean.

Continue reading at:  http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/10/14/3579338/pentagon-global-warming-national-security/

The Age of Vulnerability

From Huffington Post:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-e-stiglitz/the-age-of-vulnerability_b_5978122.html

10/13/2014
 
NEW YORK -- Two new studies show, once again, the magnitude of the inequality problem plaguing the United States. The first, the U.S. Census Bureau's annual income and poverty report, shows that, despite the economy's supposed recovery from the Great Recession, ordinary Americans' incomes continue to stagnate. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, remains below its level a quarter century ago.

It used to be thought that America's greatest strength was not its military power, but an economic system that was the envy of the world. But why would others seek to emulate an economic model by which a large proportion -- even a majority -- of the population has seen their income stagnate while incomes at the top have soared?

A second study, the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report 2014, corroborates these findings. Every year, the UNDP publishes a ranking of countries by their Human Development Index HDI, which incorporates other dimensions of well-being besides income, including health and education.

America ranks fifth according to HDI, below Norway, Australia, Switzerland and the Netherlands. But when its score is adjusted for inequality, it drops 23 spots -- among the largest such declines for any highly developed country. Indeed, the U.S. falls below Greece and Slovakia, countries that people do not typically regard as role models or as competitors with the U.S. at the top of the league tables.

The UNDP report emphasizes another aspect of societal performance: vulnerability. It points out that while many countries succeeded in moving people out of poverty, the lives of many are still precarious. A small event -- say, an illness in the family -- can push them back into destitution. Downward mobility is a real threat, while upward mobility is limited.

In the U.S., upward mobility is more myth than reality, whereas downward mobility and vulnerability is a widely shared experience. This is partly because of America's healthcare system, which still leaves poor Americans in a precarious position, despite President Barack Obama's reforms.
Those at the bottom are only a short step away from bankruptcy with all that that entails. Illness, divorce, or the loss of a job often is enough to push them over the brink.

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or "Obamacare") was intended to ameliorate these threats -- and there are strong indications that it is on its way to significantly reducing the number of uninsured Americans. But, partly owing to a Supreme Court decision and the obduracy of Republican governors and legislators, who in two dozen U.S. states have refused to expand Medicaid (insurance for the poor) -- even though the federal government pays almost the entire tab -- 41 million Americans remain uninsured. When economic inequality translates into political inequality -- as it has in large parts of the U.S. -- governments pay little attention to the needs of those at the bottom.

Continue reading at:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-e-stiglitz/the-age-of-vulnerability_b_5978122.html

In Defense of Obama

From Rolling Stone:  http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/in-defense-of-obama-20141008

The Nobel Prize-winning economist, once one of the president’s most notable critics, on why Obama is a historic success

By October 8, 2014

When it comes to Barack Obama, I've always been out of sync. Back in 2008, when many liberals were wildly enthusiastic about his candidacy and his press was strongly favorable, I was skeptical. I worried that he was naive, that his talk about transcending the political divide was a dangerous illusion given the unyielding extremism of the modern American right. Furthermore, it seemed clear to me that, far from being the transformational figure his supporters imagined, he was rather conventional-minded: Even before taking office, he showed signs of paying far too much attention to what some of us would later take to calling Very Serious People, people who regarded cutting budget deficits and a willingness to slash Social Security as the very essence of political virtue.

And I wasn't wrong. Obama was indeed naive: He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically. Furthermore, he came perilously close to doing terrible things to the U.S. safety net in pursuit of a budget Grand Bargain; we were saved from significant cuts to Social Security and a rise in the Medicare age only by Republican greed, the GOP's unwillingness to make even token concessions.

But now the shoe is on the other foot: Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn't deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it's working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it's much more effective than you'd think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

I'll go through those achievements shortly. First, however, let's take a moment to talk about the current wave of Obama-bashing. All Obama-bashing can be divided into three types. One, a constant of his time in office, is the onslaught from the right, which has never stopped portraying him as an Islamic atheist Marxist Kenyan. Nothing has changed on that front, and nothing will.

There's a different story on the left, where you now find a significant number of critics decrying Obama as, to quote Cornel West, someone who ''posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit.'' They're outraged that Wall Street hasn't been punished, that income inequality remains so high, that ''neoliberal'' economic policies are still in place. All of this seems to rest on the belief that if only Obama had put his eloquence behind a radical economic agenda, he could somehow have gotten that agenda past all the political barriers that have con- strained even his much more modest efforts. It's hard to take such claims seriously.

Finally, there's the constant belittling of Obama from mainstream pundits and talking heads. Turn on cable news (although I wouldn't advise it) and you'll hear endless talk about a rudderless, stalled administration, maybe even about a failed presidency. Such talk is often buttressed by polls showing that Obama does, indeed, have an approval rating that is very low by historical standards.

Continue reading at:  http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/in-defense-of-obama-20141008

Millions of Gen Xers Will Be Homeless Before You Know It

From Ted Rall:  http://rall.com/2014/10/13/syndicated-column-millions-of-gen-xers-will-be-homeless-before-you-know-it

Ted Rall
Oct 13, 2014


Forget terrorism, Ebola or even climate change — the most dangerous threat to this country is an epic retirement crisis.

We will soon see tens of millions of Americans reduced to poverty, bringing an end to the United States as an economic superpower.

Unlike attacks and pandemics, this crisis is an absolute certainty, one with a clear, near start date. But the media is hardly mentioning the imminent retirement crisis. So politicians haven’t even begun to think about it, much less take it seriously.

Actually, “retirement crisis” is a misnomer. The problem isn’t that people won’t be able to retire or will be living on a shoestring, though those things are true. We’re staring down the barrel of an epic old age crisis. For the average American, to be elderly will mean not mere belt-tightening, but real, grinding poverty: homelessness and hunger.

Throughout the last few decades, vulnerable people living from payday to payday have gotten battered by the shredding of the government safety net, a lack of accumulated savings caused by the boom-and-bust cycle of capitalism, and a lackluster real estate market.

Now members of the poor and lower middle class in their 50s and 60s are heading into a retirement crisis created by a perfect superstorm.

Traditional defined-benefit pension plans have been replaced by stingy 401(k)s and similar programs which employers no longer pay into, cap how much you can contribute (assuming you can afford it), take a beating during downturns in the stock market, and allow workers to tap when they’re laid off or run into financial trouble. After years of sketchy raids and outright theft, workers with old-fashioned corporate and government pensions can’t be sure their money will be there when they need it. The first Generation Xers — many of whom never had the opportunity to accumulate wealth due to several long recessions that impacted them particularly hard — will reach the traditional retirement age of 65 in the year 2024.

The facts are brutal:

Continue reading at:  http://rall.com/2014/10/13/syndicated-column-millions-of-gen-xers-will-be-homeless-before-you-know-it