Monthly Archives: March 2014

Jim Hightower: The Prof and the Pope

In Death Margaret Mary Vojtko Reaches Out to the Pope

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 | Posted by Jim Hightower

If one obscure college professor dies, does it make any difference?

If you’re Margaret Mary Vojtko, yes. In life, she was just another adjunct teacher at Duquesne University being grossly underpaid and maltreated by the school. Her story would be unknown – except for Daniel Kovalik.

A lawyer with the United Steelworkers (USW), Daniel knew Margaret Mary through his union’s drive to help adjunct teachers organize for better pay and treatment. He wrote up her story, telling how Duquesne had paid her so little that she spiraled into abject poverty. Then they coldly booted her – no severance, no good byes. Impoverished, abandoned, scared, and stressed to the limit, her heart exploded shortly afterwards.

Yet, in death Margaret Mary is more alive than ever! Kovalik’s poignant piece swept through the internet, striking a chord with adjunct teachers everywhere. They see that their own low-wage position could put them in the same downward spiral it did for her. So Margaret Mary’s story is being repeated all across the country, energizing organizing campaigns to empower and lift up these hard-hit university teachers.

In a case of beautiful irony, one of their strongest campaigns is taking place at Duquesne. Adjuncts there have already voted to join the Steelworkers union, but the domineering masters of this Catholic school are resorting to devious, legalistic ploys to deny simple justice for their faculty. Bizarrely, they’ve even demanded a religious exemption from our labor laws, claiming that unionization would interfere with their teaching of Catholic values!

USW’s president, Leo Gerard, has appealed that claim. Not to the courts, but to the Pope! And to make his case that Pope Francis should speak out on this issue of social justice, Gerard told him the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko. So in death, Margaret Mary even met the Pope.

“Death of an adjunct,” http://www.post-gazette.com, September 18, 2014.

“Letter from United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard to Pope Francis,” December 19, 2013.

“Fighting For Union Recognition,” United Steelworkers At Work, Volume 9/1, Winter 2014.

Counterpunch on Fracking Fiction and the EU

What the Tough-Talking Weaners Ignore

Europe Doesn’t Need America’s Fracked Gas

by DEAN BAKER

In the wake of the Russian take over of Crimea, there have been a number of calls for weaning Europe from dependence on Russian natural gas. Some have suggested that Europe would abandon environmental restrictions on drilling for oil and gas to increase domestic production. To help, the U.S. would continue to massively increase production of oil and gas as well as its capacity to liquefy natural gas and transport it to Europe.

The weaners seem to have the impression that this is yet another case in which the United States has to come to the rescue of those weak Europeans. After all, while we were drilling everywhere, the Europeans were fiddling around with wind and solar energy, all the while making themselves vulnerable to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s machinations.

Reality-based fans of arithmetic see matters differently. The reality is that Europe, especially Germany, has done a huge amount over the last two decades to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, including natural gas, from Russia. The reduction in fossil fuel use swamps the impact of the drill-everywhere strategy in the United States.

If Europe had not been aggressively pushing to reduce its energy use, there is no way that gas from Russia could be replaced by domestically fracked gas or imports from elsewhere. In addition, Europe’s efforts to reduce fuel consumption have the advantage of slowing global warming.

According to the Energy Information Agency, Germany’s conservation measures have had the effect of reducing its energy intensity of production (the amount of energy used per dollar of GDP) by roughly 30 percent over the last two decades. While the United States has seen a comparable percentage reduction in its energy intensity, its energy intensity of production is still far higher than Germany’s. In fact, the current level of energy intensity in the United States is higher than the energy intensity of Germany’s economy in 1991. If Germany were as energy inefficient as the U.S., it would need over 50 percent more energy to meet its needs.

In addition, Germany now generates almost a quarter of its energy from renewable energy sources. The vast majority of this energy comes from wind and solar, with hydropower counting for less than a quarter.

If Germany and other European Union countries had not been aggressively promoting conservation and alternative energy sources, the price of Russia’s natural gas would probably be close to twice its current levels. The demand for natural gas would be far higher; the only countervailing factor would be the extent to which dirtier energy sources such as coal might have been used instead.

The idea that the United States can fill any significant portion of Europe’s need for natural gas with fracked gas and that this gas could available anytime soon, as hypothesized by some pundits, is simply not realistic. The amount of gas that the European Union imports from Russia is more than half of total U.S. production. It would take an enormous ramping up of natural gas production in the United States to be able to export any substantial amount to the EU without shortages leading to sharp jumps in price in the United States.

That seems unlikely even if we decided to ignore all environmental considerations. Many of the new fields already have declining production, so it would take a huge increase in drilling to fill the gap and add capacity to allow for large-scale exports to the EU.

In addition, we would have to increase our ability to liquefy and export natural gas. This can be done, but it takes time and money. One industry source put the full cost of constructing an export facility at $30 billion. This is money that could be recovered only through many years of exporting large volumes of natural gas. And these facilities would take years to build. Even in an optimistic scenario, large volumes of liquefied natural gas would probably not be heading to Europe until the end of the decade.

If the goal is to reduce demand for Russian natural gas, the most cost-effective way is to do much more of what Germany and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the EU is already doing: promote conservation and mass transit and further subsidize the cost of installing solar and wind energy. That might not sound as hard-nosed as drilling everywhere, polluting groundwater and exposing people to the dangers of transporting a highly explosive fuel, but it is the solution that makes the most economic sense.

The EU model also has the advantage of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing global warming. This is an issue that the tough talkers seem to go out of their way to ignore, but ignoring it will not make global warming go away.

In 30 years, when hundreds of millions of people are suffering from the damage caused by global warming, the tough talkers may want to be able to tell their children and grandchildren about the time they stood up to Putin with their drill-everywhere strategy. The rest of us might prefer to be able to tell future generations about what we did to ensure that we passed along a habitable planet.

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera America.

 

Naked Capitalism: Why Abby Huntsman’s an Idiot

Joe Firestone: Progressives Need to Up Their Game Against Social Security’s Enemies

Posted on March 24, 2014 by

Yves here. I must confess I find it difficult to counter the simple-minded and inaccurate arguments of the deficit scaremongers. They start from the falsehood that we have been “living beyond our means” when pre-crisis, deficits were running at 1.2% of GDP and the CBO projected that they would rise to and remain at 1.5% of GDP, which was a sustainable level. The Federal debt to GDP ratio would have fallen over time at that level of spending.

What made debt levels rise was the global financial crisis. Yet you never, ever, hear this crowd talk about banking industry reform, or for that matter anything other than cutting “entitlements”. The formula is “deficits dangerous, cut spending for ordinary people.”

It’s hard to beat the “live within your means” imagery, which is intuitively appealing to most people and difficult to rebut in the soundbites usually allotted for this type of conversation on TV or at conferences. Dean Baker takes the line of explaining that long-term forecasting is prone to error, and that even it Social Security turns out to need fixes, we have plenty of time to do it and it would take at most 1% more of GDP of spending, which is comfortably affordable. And as for Medicare, which is not part of this post, I suggest you read how the Fed’s long term fiscal forecasters have shredded the CBO model that has served as the basis of deficit hysteria. They demonstrate that the spending growth projections are indefensibly aggressive and violate the CBO’s own rules for budget forecasting.

By Joe Firestone, Ph.D., Managing Director, CEO of the Knowledge Management Consortium International (KMCI), and Director of KMCI’s CKIM Certificate program. He taught political science as the graduate and undergraduate level and blogs regularly at Corrente, Firedoglake and Daily Kos as letsgetitdone. Cross posted from New Economic Perspectives

MSNBC’s right wing representative on The Cycle, Abby Huntsman, got a lot of pushback from Social Security defenders after her rant last week. They made points similar to the following in countering Huntsman (seen at the following link):

http://www.msnbc.com/the-cycle/watch/the-millennial-generation-faces-big-problems-194378307939#

– SS is not bankrupt now, it has $2.6 Trillion in Treasury IOUs in the SS “trust fund” accumulated because Treasury has used FICA collections to “pay for” other Federal spending since 1983, when the Government began to collect more from workers and employers than was paid out to beneficiaries. The accumulated IOUs, projected interest on them, and future FICA collections are projected as being enough to “cover” 100% of SS benefits until 2033, and then 75% of benefits thereafter. 100% of benefits could be “covered” from 2033 on, if the payroll tax cap on Social Security were to be removed.

– Huntsman’s claim that seniors have longer life expectancies than when SS first was enacted is greatly exaggerated, because life expectancies at birth have improved due to improvements in infant mortality rates. But they haven’t improved nearly as much at age 65 and older, and apart from that, the improvement that exists after age 65 is reached is primarily concentrated among certain social groups, and that the poorest and most needy groups in our population, who need SS the most, have either seen little improvement in life expectancy, or even a decline in life expectancy in recent years.

– Savings of seniors now average very little more than is needed for them to cover Medical expenses due to aging and there is precious little left over for living expenses beyond what SS spending will cover.

– Huntsman is conflating the SS “Trust Fund” running out of money in 2033, with SS running out of money. The first is happening as it was always planned to happen when the Reagan Administration and Congress agreed to raise FICA payments to almost double the amount previously paid, for the boomer generation to cover its retirement benefits; but the second depends on what Congress will do in the future to close the gap between current projected FICA revenues and projected benefits.

These two are different because the Government can do various things to close that gap. Huntsman mentions only cutting benefits or moving the SS retirement age to either 70 or even 75, so that enough will be left in the fund to close the revenue/benefits gap. But there are other ways of doing this easily; most notably removing the payroll tax cap so that the well-off, or those who are prospering, will pay the same share of their income into Social Security as most of the rest of us, and/or there can also be gradual small increases in the employee and employer contributions that will close the projected gaps indefinitely.Other points of less importance, and moral arguments, which from my point of view are among the most important, about the right to a decent secure retirement for the elderly are made, as well.

But, there is one point, the most important one of all, which is not made in all these “progressive” push back arguments against Abby Hunstman’s right wing Petersonian “Fix the Debt” rant. That is the point that there is no entitlement crisis and no emergency, and neither an increase in payroll taxes, nor robbing from “future generations” is necessary to close the projected gap after 2033 because Congress can pass legislation providing for annual automatic funding of expected costs for all SS and Medicare trust funds.

That’s done now for Supplementary Medical Insurance (Medicare Part B), and Prescription Drug Benefits (Medicare Part D), and the same practice using similar legislative language can be extended to the SS Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and Disability Insurance (DI) trust funds. End of story. Once that is done, no gaps between SS revenue and benefits can be projected by institutions, such as CBO, under current law.

You may doubt this solution by pointing out that legislation like this just pushes off Huntsman’s Social Security solvency problem to the Treasury at large, rather than its being SS’s problem, but it doesn’t solve the real insolvency problem. Only it does, because the Government as a whole has no fiscal solvency problem, since it can always use its authority to create the reserves in the Treasury spending accounts to pay all its bills including all those exceeding its revenues.

The customary way of creating such reserves is to sell Treasury debt instruments, destroying reserves in the private sector, and getting the Fed to place an equal amount of reserves in its accounts. But, there is another way it can be done under current law, and still other ways open to Congress, if they want to pay all the SS benefits they would have guaranteed by the proposed change in the law that would solve this faux problem.

The way any gap appropriated by Congress can be closed under current law, is to use Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) to do it. As many of my readers know, I’ve explained how this would work in my e-book. But, the basic idea is that coin seigniorage can be used by the Treasury to require the Fed to use its reserve creation authority to place reserves in Treasury accounts, without Treasury engaging in any additional taxing or borrowing.

So, this capability coupled with Congress providing for annual automatic funding would end the Huntsman, Peterson, Bowles, Simpson, Ryan, and Obama revenue gap problems with Social Security and all other entitlements, for that matter, without these poor folks having to worry about taxing the rich, like them. And, if Congress doesn’t like that alternative way of placing reserves in Treasury’s accounts so it can spend Congressional appropriations, then it can always just go ahead and place the Fed within the Treasury Department, giving the Secretary the direct authority to order the Fed to fill its accounts with enough reserves to cover any revenue shortfalls, without either raising taxes or issuing more debt instruments.

So, these are the easy ways to end the faux crisis which won’t befall us anyway until 2033. Why won’t the “progressives” pushing back against Abby Huntsman mention solutions like these? Why do they, instead, always propose solutions that will raise taxes on the wealthy? Are they afraid to let the people know that the Government isn’t like a household and doesn’t have the same financial problems they have, just written large? Are they so insistent on solutions that will tax higher income and wealthy people, because they must kill the two birds of full employment and greater equality through taxing with a single stone?

Moving toward greater economic equality is a focus we ought to prioritize very highly, but getting that done is a separate issue from defeating deficit terrorism by taking the deficit reduction and faux entitlement crises off the table so full resources can be devoted to strengthening the safety net and legislating programs essential for getting millions of Americans on their feet again and contemplating the future with hope. That, in itself, will lessen inequality.

And after that is done, we can then turn our attention to programs primarily focused on creating greater economic equality. But until it is done, let us focus on stopping the bleeding of working and middle class Americans and restoring them to the economic health and sense of economic opportunity, that we’ve always thought was so important to American life.

Naked Capitalism on Corporate Rule

These Charts Show What Is Wrong With American Capitalism

Posted on March 24, 2014 by

For the last 30 years, neoliberals have fixated on a simple program: “Get government out of the way,” which meant reduce taxes and regulations. Business will invest more, which will produce a higher growth rate and greater prosperity for all. The belief was that unfettered capitalism could solve all ills.

Policymakers have dutifully followed this script. Corporations have gotten more and more tax breaks, with the result that the GAO found that their effective Federal tax rate in 2010 was 13% of worldwide income for companies with profits. Corporate income taxes represent a mere 11% of total Federal tax receipts, down from 30% in the mid-1950s. And we’ve also seen substantial deregulation in many sectors of the economy, particularly financial services, transportation, and telecommunications.

So have companies lived up to their half of the neoliberal bargain? Take a look at this chart from Andrew Smithers, which was published at the Financial Times. He prepared it to demonstrate how stock market prices have been driven almost entirely by corporate buying. But it serves to make an additional point: that the stock market for a very long time has not served mainly (or lately, much at all) as a vehicle for companies to raise funds to expand their business. Instead, it serves as a machine for manipulating stock prices.

Chart-1-US-Sector-Net-Buying-of-Equities-600x410

Notice that US corporations have been buyers in aggregate since 1985. Now admittedly, that does not mean they stopped investing, since the primary source of investment capital is retained earnings, and companies also typically prefer to borrow rather than issue stock. But as of the 1980s, they were already preferring buying stocks (then mainly of other companies rather than their own, as in acquisitions) to the harder work of expanding their business de novo. Deals are much sexier than building factories or sweating new product launches.

But by the mid 2000, companies had indeed shifted to being net savers rather than net borrowers, which was an unheard of behavior in an expansion. That is tantamount to disinvesting. As Rob Parenteau and I wrote in 2010:

Unbeknownst to most commentators, corporations in the US and many advanced economies have been underinvesting for some time.

The normal state of affairs is for households to save for large purchases, retirement and emergencies, and for businesses to tap those savings via borrowings or equity investments to help fund the expansion of their businesses.

But many economies have abandoned that pattern. For instance, IMF and World Bank studies found a reduced reinvestment rate of profits in many Asian nations following the 1998 crisis. Similarly, a 2005 JPMorgan report noted with concern that since 2002, US corporations on average ran a net financial surplus of 1.7 percent of GDP, which contrasted with an average deficit of 1.2 percent of GDP for the preceding forty years. Companies as a whole historically ran fiscal surpluses, meaning in aggregate they saved rather than expanded, in economic downturns, not expansion phases.

The big culprit in America is that public companies are obsessed with quarterly earnings. Investing in future growth often reduces profits short term. The enterprise has to spend money, say on additional staff or extra marketing, before any new revenues come in the door. And for bolder initiatives like developing new products, the up front costs can be considerable (marketing research, product design, prototype development, legal expenses associated with patents, lining up contractors). Thus a fall in business investment short circuits a major driver of growth in capitalist economies.

Companies, while claiming they maximize shareholder value, increasingly prefer to pay their executives exorbitant bonuses, or issue special dividends to shareholders, or engage in financial speculation. They turn their backs on the traditional role of a capitalist – to find and exploit profitable opportunities to expand his activities

And ZIRP has perversely enabled this behavior. As Smithers writes:

US top managements are receiving huge bonuses which are typically linked to earnings per share or the return on corporate equity. This means that buybacks increase their pay and investing in equipment pushes it down. The result is that companies spend less of their cash flow than ever before on capital investment and have increased their buybacks to near record levels (chart three).

Chart-3-US-Nonfinancial-Companies-Investment-and-Buybacks-600x413

As it is in the interest of their managements, I expect companies to go on buying back shares until their cash flows fall off and I don’t expect this to happen soon.

Smithers isn’t the only economist who believes that companies have the ability to prop up this long-in-tooth bull market for quite some time. For instance, about ten days ago when nerves were frayed over Russia’s troop movements into the Crimea, market indexes around the world fell sharply, typically in 1.5% to 2.0%. The US market was down less than 1%. The cause wasn’t distance from Europe or late-breaking news that calmed rattled investors. It was corporate buying. One hedgie told me that the Morgan Stanley desk told him that corporate buyers were placing large orders that day.

So with large corporations finding it more attractive to game their stock than duke it out in the marketplace, and small companies generally gun-shy in a tepid economy, we have the foundations for the corporate elite to continue looting. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens contend with a hostile job market and have little reason to hope that their financial condition will improve. Welcome to the neoliberal paradise.

Bill Maher on Branding Truth

Classic Bill Maher on the power of words, discovered in the age of Reagan…

Common Dreams on the Real Welfare Queens

Corporate Welfare and the Minimum Wage

(Photo: SEIU)The arguments against raising the minimum wage are bullshit. The majority of Americans including conservatives support an increase yet congress continues to drag its feet on doing right by the people they claim to serve.  The conservative “pull-yourself up-by your-bootstraps” mentality has become an acceptable excuse to justify kicking people when they’re down. The greedy and elitist attitudes of CEO’s and bankers have created a culture of entitlement in this country in which stealing from others less powerful is the best way to get to the top regardless of the social cost.

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009  despite cost of living increases and the fact that Americans are being forced to get by on less pay, food stamps, unemployment, savings etc. Every resource the working poor needs to stay afloat or get ahead is gone or disappearing. The increases we keep hearing about of $9-$10/hr phased in over two years to “prepare Corporate America” will not do much for the working class who need a significant raise now. How is it that no one working a full-time job at minimum wage can afford a two bedroom apt in this country?

Let’s not forget the federal tipped wage of $2.13/hr which is beyond criminal but still in place largely because of lobbying to keep it there by the National Restaurant Association, which brought in $660.5 billion last year. Servers don’t makes hundreds in tips like many assume and often end a shift with less than ten or twenty dollars even if they had a good section; I know that firsthand. Slow business and bad weather on top of tipping out means no money for groceries or rent and a large amount of time spent standing around wasted only to do it all over again the next day… IF you’re on the schedule.

There’s a reason it takes congress decades to consider a wage increase (3 times in 30 years) and only days to cut checks to billion-dollar corporations pleading poverty.

The top 4 conservative lies about raising the wage include:

  1. increasing wages will force businesses to close
  2. higher labor costs will lead to higher unemployment
  3. minimum wage earners aren’t primary breadwinners
  4. unskilled workers and teenagers won’t be able to get a job

First, Costco, the second largest retailer in the United States with 103 billion in sales, is looking to expand their operations after raising their employee pay and advocating the benefits of doing so. GAP clothing store is also proactively increasing their employee pay to $9/hr this year and $10 next year. A number of small businesses have also survived pay increases and remain profitable. What’s purposely overlooked is how often an overpaid CEO’s financial missteps jeopardized company finances to the point of closure or caused serious financial damage.

Second, the one percent has been telling this lie since 1938 and Big Business is doing just fine. Higher pay actually saves businesses money by reducing employee turnover and increasing worker productivity.  Even the Congressional Budget Office’s projected loss of 500,000 jobs is minimal and they acknowledge that increased wages will benefit 16.5 million people and lift 900,000 out of poverty. This report also details why the minimum wage has no discernible effect on employment. Facts and common sense shows that blatant greed, outsourcing, and deregulation are the real job killers.

Third, over 60% of minimum-wage workers are women who are also the breadwinners in 4 out of 10  households. Single mothers, like myself, are also the poorest and most at risk of falling into deep poverty. A living wage would benefit these women and their children the most especially now that congress keeps gutting their safety net and their employers are cutting their hours to not have to provide health insurance or other benefits. Those at the bottom of the pay scale aren’t just bringing in second incomes or working as a hobby; they are running a household and raising a family on one income.

Fourth, the majority of low-wage workers are adults, not teenagers. Neither my lack of skills nor age stopped the billion-dollar, multinational Burger King from giving me my first job at 16 even though they had to pay me a higher wage than they thought I deserved. The fact that low-level employees tend to have the hardest jobs because they’re at the bottom justifies any pay increase due to them. They also quickly develop the skills they need to better perform so they can keep their job and hopefully advance. Someone has to do the undesirable grunt work especially as the first point of contact whether it’s cashiering, bussing tables, serving lunch to schoolkids, delivering papers, picking up garbage, or changing bed pans and they should be paid a living wage to do it.

To those who say entry-level jobs aren’t meant to be permanent, for many the low pay is too necessary to leave and often people can’t advance to a management position without a degree. As for the ignorant remarks about going back to school, much like paying rent in New York City, college is too damn expensive and a degree is no guarantee of escaping or avoiding poverty. How many waitresses, receptionists, call center agents, and truck drivers have diplomas and still can’t find work in their fields of study? As far as the cost of products like food and gas going up, those costs have been going up any way regardless of employee pay and will continue to do so especially given Wall Street speculation.

There’s no easy way to get ahead when you’re doing everything right in a system setting you up to fail.

On the other hand Democrats are just as complicit in all of this. While the working poor struggles, they’re out praising .10 minimum wage increases across the country as progress and compromising our food stamps and Social Security for their personal gain. They don’t want to talk about how they failed to pass a meaningful increase when they had full legislative control back in 2009.  Party leadership is currently positioning members to take back the House later this year by blaming income inequality solely on conservatives; don’t be fooled. It takes two to keep the working poor enslaved and dependent and Democrats are along for the ride.

Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford details why Obama’s executive order to raise the wage to $10.10/hr for federal employees is disgustingly disingenuous. Why must there be an ulterior motive behind helping people? While it’s not the government’s job to provide for all of our needs and wants, it is their job as public servants to ensure that our tax dollars aren’t wasted on subsidizing corporations that can afford to pay more but don’t want to. We taxpayers have no say in how our money is distributed yet Corporate America gets to not only loot the treasury but also shorten our paychecks by keeping more of their profits, profits they can’t receive without the hard work of the working class. It’s common sense that when people earn a living wage less public assistance is needed therefore saving billions in tax dollars. Politicians and corporations also can’t seem to grasp that the economy along with a person’s quality of life improves when people have money to spend. Black Friday media coverage proves that low-income people with money love to shop and not just during the holidays or when things go on sale.

Working-class Americans don’t have money to save or invest overseas like CEO’s and trust fund babies. We have to spend every dollar we have trying to stay afloat and not starve or end up in the streets with our kids. Corporations don’t have a moral compass; they are guided by greed and power. Why should the government intervene in the “free market” to force corporations to pay more? Because taxpayers are sick of being on the hook for their fuck ups. All corporations which receive taxpayer dollars and don’t pay a living wage of at least $15 an hour need to be cut off from government welfare effective immediately. If a corporation can’t stay in business without public assistance, tough shit; they can blame it on the free market. Paying a living wage to the people who run your business is the cost of doing business and “job creators” can either pay it or shut down, it’s that simple. Per our constitution, government is to provide for the general welfare of the people and corporations aren’t people — damn what the Supreme Court says.

When employers cut our hours, pay, and benefits we are forced to adjust. When they are forced to pay a living wage they will adjust as well. The time to raise the minimum wage to a living wage of at least $15/hr is now, not when Corporate America feels like getting to it. We don’t need Big Government or Big Business, they need us and our tax dollars and it should cost them — dearly.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Joslyn Stevens

Joslyn Stevens is a writer, photojournalist, and activist specializing in poverty and politics. She resides in Utah and can be reached via twitter@joslynstevens and by email at joslyn@joslynstevens.com

National Priorities: The Budget in Graphs

President’s 2015 Budget in Pictures

By Jasmine Tucker 

Chart assistance by Daniel Gautreau

Discretionary Spending

This is how discretionary spending, above, fits into the overall federal budget. As you can see, discretionary spending is less than a third of all federal spending. Sixty-five percent of spending, or $2.6 trillion, falls under the mandatory spending category. Mandatory spending refers to spending for earned-benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security. The remaining 6 percent of the federal budget, or $252 billion, will go towards interest on the federal debt.

Mandatory Spending

Note: While there is some mandatory spending that occurs in categories beyond the five that are shown in this chart, they are so small that together they account for less than 1 percent of the total and have been omitted.

Total Spending

MIlitary and Non-Military Discretionary Spending

This chart shows how funding for military and non-military discretionary spending has changed over time. Military spending accounts for 55 percent of the president’s 2015 discretionary budget proposal, while non-military spending accounts for 45 percent.

Federal Spending and Revenue as a Share of GDP

Individual and Corporate Income Taxes as Percent of Total Federal Revenue

This chart shows how tax revenue from individuals and corporations has changed over time. Individual income taxes will account for 46 percent of total tax revenue in 2015, while corporations will contribute 13.5 percent. Other federal revenue will come from payroll taxes, as well as customs and excise taxes.

Total Tax Revenue

Annual Budget Deficit or Surplus as a Share of the Economy

Spoken by an avowed racist, but even a broken watch is right twice a day…

Bribery

Jim Hightower on “Natural” GMOs

The Mendacity of GMO Purveyors

Tuesday, March 18, 2014   |   Posted by Jim Hightower

Tenacity can be a virtue. But the persistent push by giant food conglomerates to deceive us consumers has turned their tenacity into raw mendacity.

Brand-name food peddlers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbyists, lawyers, campaign donations, PR hypesters, and political manipulators so they can genetically (and dangerously) alter the dinner we put on our family tables, without bothering to tell us which items they’ve messed with. With practically no public notice, their first deception was to get Washington to okay the production and introduction of genetically modified organisms into corn, canola, soy, and other crops. Then they quietly pushed to prevent federal regulators from requiring that these tampered Frankenfoods be labeled as containing GMOs. Next, they tried a grand deception insisting that foods tainted with GMOs qualify for the national “organic” label.

Even our usually-submissive regulators balked at that one – but, look out, for here they come again! Big Food’s industry front group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is now demanding that foods with genetically-engineered ingredients be allowed to use the word “natural” on their packages.

Natural? Let’s see – one, these biotech mutations are not products of nature, but of corporate technicians; and two, the plants are manufactured in corporate labs by extracting genes from a foreign plant or even an animal, then splicing those genes into the manufactured creature. The very DNA of this man-made “food” is altered, with no understanding of the long-term environmental or health consequences.

A Twinkie is more natural than that! They’re perverting both our language and nature’s reality. To oppose these profiteers’ tenacious mendaciousness, contact the Environmental Working Group: www.ewg.org.

“Group Seeks Special Label For Food: ‘Natural,'” The New York Times, December 20, 2013.

Counterpunch on the Failed War on Terrorism & the Saudi Link

Al Qaeda’s Second Act

Why the War on Terror Went Wrong

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Al-Qa’ida-type organisations, with beliefs and methods of operating similar to those who carried out the 9/11 attacks, have become a lethally powerful force from the Tigris to the Mediterranean in the past three years. Since the start of 2014, they have held Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, much of the upper Euphrates valley, and exert increasing control over the Sunni heartlands of northern Iraq. In Syria, their fighters occupy villages and towns from the outskirts of Damascus to the border with Turkey, including the oilfields in the north-east of the country. Overall, they are now the most powerful military force in an area the size of Britain.

The spectacular resurgence of al-Qa’ida and its offshoots has happened despite the huge expansion of American and British intelligence services and their budgets after 9/11. Since then, the US, closely followed by Britain, has fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and adopted procedures formerly associated with police states, such as imprisonment without trial, rendition, torture and domestic espionage. Governments justify this as necessary to wage the “war on terror”, claiming that the rights of individual citizens must be sacrificed to secure the safety of all.

Despite these controversial security measures, the movements against which they are aimed have not only not been defeated but have grown stronger. At the time of 9/11, al-Qa’ida was a very small organisation, but in 2014 al-Qa’ida-type groups are numerous and powerful. In other words, the “war on terror”, the waging of which determined the politics of so much of the world since 2001, has demonstrably failed.

How this failure happened is perhaps the most extraordinary development of the 21st century. Politicians were happy to use the threat of al-Qa’ida to persuade people that their civil liberties should be restricted and state power expanded, but they spent surprisingly little time calculating the most effective practical means to combat the movement. They have been able to get away with this by giving a misleading definition of al-Qa’ida, which varied according to what was politically convenient at the time.

Jihadi groups ideologically identical to al-Qa’ida are relabelled as moderate if their actions are deemed supportive of US policy aims. In Syria, the US is backing a plan by Saudi Arabia to build up a “Southern Front” based in Jordan against the Assad government in Damascus, but also hostile to al-Qa’ida-type rebels in the north and east. The powerful but supposedly “moderate” Yarmouk Brigade, which is reportedly to receive anti-aircraft missiles from Saudi Arabia, will be the leading element in this new formation. But numerous videos show that the Yarmouk Brigade has frequently fought in collaboration with Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the official al-Qa’ida affiliate. Since it is likely that, in the midst of battle, these two groups will share their munitions, Washington will be permitting advanced weaponry to be handed over to its deadliest enemy.

This episode helps explain why al-Qa’ida and its offshoots have been able to survive and flourish. The “war on terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries that had fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement. The US did not do so because they were important American allies whom it did not want to offend. Saudi Arabia is an enormous market for American arms, and the Saudis have cultivated and, on occasion bought up, influential members of the American political establishment.

A measure of the seriousness of the present situation is that, in recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has for the first time been urgently seeking to stop jihadi fighters, whom it previously allowed to join the war in Syria, from returning home and turning their weapons against the rulers of the Saudi kingdom. This is an abrupt reversal of previous Saudi policy, which tolerated or privately encouraged Saudi citizens going to Syria to take part in a holy war to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and combat Shia Muslims on behalf of Sunni Islam.

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has called on all foreign fighters to leave Syria, and King Abdullah has decreed it a crime for Saudis to fight in foreign conflicts. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who had been in charge of organising, funding and supplying jihadi groups fighting in Syria, has been unexpectedly removed from overseeing Saudi policy towards Syria, and replaced by a prince who has led a security clampdown against al-Qa’ida inside Saudi Arabia.

The US is increasingly fearful that support for the Syrian rebels by the West and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf has created a similar situation to that in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when indiscriminate backing for insurgents ultimately produced al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and jihadi warlords. The US Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, warned this month that “terrorist” movements, such as JAN  and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), were not only destabilising Syria but “these well-funded and well-equipped groups may soon turn their attention to attacks outside of Syria, particularly as scores of newly radicalised and freshly trained foreign recruits return from Syria to their home countries”. The number of foreign fighters that Mr Cohen gives is a significant underestimate, since the head of US intelligence, James Clapper, estimates foreign fighters in Syria to number about 7,000, mostly from the Arab world, but also from countries such as Chechnya, France and Britain.

Al-Qa’ida has always been a convenient enemy. In Iraq, in 2003 and 2004, as armed Iraqi opposition to the American and British-led occupation mounted, US spokesmen attributed most attacks to al-Qa’ida, though many were carried out by nationalist and Baathist groups. According to a poll by the Pew Group, this persuaded 57 per cent of US voters before the Iraq invasion to believe that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and those responsible for 9/11, despite a complete absence of evidence for this. In Iraq itself, indeed the whole Muslim world, these accusations benefited al-Qa’ida by exaggerating its role in the resistance to the US and British occupation.

Precisely the opposite PR tactics were employed by Western governments in 2011 in Libya, where they played down any similarity between al-Qa’ida and the Nato-backed rebels fighting to overthrow the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. This was done by describing as dangerous only those jihadis who had a direct operational link to the al-Qa’ida “core” of Osama bin Laden. The falsity of the pretence that the anti-Gaddafi jihadis in Libya were less threatening than those in contact with al-Qa’ida was forcefully, if tragically, exposed when US ambassador Chris Stevens was killed by jihadi fighters in Benghazi in September 2012. These were the same fighters lauded by governments and media for their role in the anti-Gaddafi uprising.

Al-Qa’ida is an idea rather than an organisation, and this has long been so. For a five-year period after 1996, it did have cadres, resources and camps in Afghanistan, but these were eliminated after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Subsequently, al-Qa’ida’s name was a rallying cry, a set of Islamic beliefs such as the creation of an Islamic state, the imposition of sharia, a return to Islamic customs, the subjugation of women and waging holy war against other Muslims, notably the Shia, as heretics worthy of death. At the centre of this doctrine for making war is an emphasis on self-sacrifice and martyrdom as a symbol of religious faith and commitment. This has turned out to be a way of using untrained but fanatical believers to devastating effect as suicide bombers.

It has always been in the interests of the US and other governments that al-Qa’ida should be viewed as having a command-and-control structure like a mini-Pentagon, or the Mafia in America as shown in the Godfather films. This is a comforting image for the public because  organised groups, however demonic, can be tracked down and eliminated through imprisonment or death. More alarming is the reality of a movement whose adherents are self-recruited and may spring up anywhere.

Osama bin Laden’s gathering of militants, which he did not call al-Qa’ida until after 9/11, was just one of many jihadi groups 12 years ago. But today its ideas and methods are predominant among jihadis because of the prestige and publicity it gained through the destruction of the twin towers, the war in Iraq and its demonisation by Washington as the source of all anti-American evil. These days, there is a decreasing difference in the beliefs of jihadis, regardless of whether or not they are formally linked to al-Qa’ida central, now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. An observer in southern Turkey discussing 9/11 with a range of Syrian jihadi rebels earlier this year found that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the US”.

Unsurprisingly, governments prefer the fantasy picture of al-Qa’ida because it enables them to claim a se ries of victories by killing its better-known members and allies. Often, those eliminated are given quasi-military ranks, such as “head of operations”, to enhance the significance of their demise. The culmination of this most publicised but largely irrelevant aspect of the “war on terror” was the killing of Bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011. This enabled President Obama to grandstand before the American public as the man who had presided over the hunting down of al-Qa’ida’s leader. In practice, his death had no impact on al-Qa’ida-type jihadi groups, whose greatest expansion has been since 2011.

The resurgence of these jihadis is most striking on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but is evident in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and, in recent months, Lebanon and Egypt. In Iraq, it was a final humiliation for the US, after losing 4,500 soldiers, that al-Qa’ida’s black flag should once again fly in Fallujah, captured with much self-congratulatory rhetoric by US Marines in 2004. Aside from Fallujah, Isis, the premier jihadi movement in the country, has rapidly expanded its influence in all parts of Sunni Iraq in the past three years. It levies local taxes and protection money in Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, estimated to bring in $8m (£4.8m) a month.

It has been able to capitalise on two factors: the Sunni revolt in Syria and the alienation of the Iraqi Sunni by a Shia-led government. Peaceful protests by Sunni started in December 2012, but a lack of concessions by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a massacre at a peace camp at Hawijah last April is transmuting peaceful protest into armed resistance.

Last summer, Isis freed hundreds of its leaders and experienced militants in a spectacular raid on Abu Ghraib prison. Its stepped-up bombing campaign killed 9,500 people, mostly Shia civilians, in the course of last year, the heaviest casualties since 2008. But there is a crucial difference between then and now. Even at the previous peak of its influence in 2004-06, al-Qa’ida in Iraq did not enjoy as strong a position in the Sunni armed opposition as it does today.

Jessica D Lewis, of the Institute for the Study of War, commented in a study of the movement at the end of 2013 that al-Qa’ida in Iraq “is an extremely vigorous, resilient and capable organisation that can operate from Basra to coastal Syria”.

In Syria, Isis was the original founder in early 2012 of JAN, sending it money, arms and experienced fighters. A year later, it tried to reassert its authority over JAN by folding it into a broader organisation covering both Syria and Iraq. The two are now involved in a complicated intra-jihadi civil war that began at the start of the year, pitting Isis, notorious for its cruelty and determination to monopolise power, against the other jihadi groups. The more secular Free Syrian Army (FSA), once designated along with its political wing by the West as the next rulers of Syria, has collapsed and been marginalised.

The armed opposition is now dominated by jihadis who wish to establish an Islamic state, accept foreign fighters, and have a vicious record of massacring Syria’s minorities, notably the Alawites and the Christians. The Islamic Front, for instance, a newly established and powerful alliance of opposition brigades backed by Turkey and Qatar, is fighting Isis. But that does not mean that it is not complicit in sectarian killings, and it insists on strict imposition of sharia, including the public flogging of those who do not attend Friday prayers. The Syrian jihadis rule most of north-east Syria aside from that part of it held by the Kurds. The government clings to a few outposts in this vast area, but does not have the forces to recapture it.

The decisions that enabled al-Qa’ida to avoid elimination, and later to expand, were made in the hours immediately after 9/11. Almost every significant element in the project to crash planes into the twin towers and other iconic American buildings led back to Saudi Arabia. Bin laden was a member of the Saudi elite, whose father had been a close associate of the Saudi monarch. Of the 19 hijackers on 9/11, 15 were Saudi nationals. Citing a CIA report of 2002, the official 9/11 report says that al-Qa’ida relied for its financing on “a variety of donors and fundraisers, primarily in the Gulf countries and particularly in Saudi Arabia”. The report’s investigators repeatedly found their access limited or denied when seeking information in Saudi Arabia. Yet President George W Bush never considered holding the Saudis in any way responsible for what had happened. The exit of senior Saudis, including Bin Laden relatives, from the US was facilitated by the government in the days after 9/11. Most significantly, 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report about the relationship between the attackers and Saudi Arabia was cut and never published – despite a promise by President Obama to do so – on the grounds of national security.

Nothing much changed in Saudi Arabia until recent months. In 2009, eight years after 9/11, a cable from the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, revealed by WikiLeaks, complains that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.

Moreover, the US and the west Europeans showed themselves indifferent to Saudi preachers, their message spread to millions by satellite TV, YouTube and Twitter, calling for the killing of Shia as heretics. These calls came as al-Qa’ida bombs were slaughtering people in Shia neighbourhoods in Iraq. A sub-headline in another State Department cable in the same year reads: “Saudi Arabia: Anti-Shi’ism As Foreign Policy?” Five years later, Saudi-supported groups have a record of extreme sectarianism against non-Sunni Muslims.

Pakistan, or rather Pakistani military intelligence in the shape of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was the other parent of al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and jihadi movements in general. When the Taliban was disintegrating under the weight of US bombing in 2001, its forces in northern Afghanistan were trapped by anti-Taliban forces. Before they surrendered, hundreds of ISI members, military trainers and advisers were hastily evacuated by air. Despite the clearest evidence of ISI’s sponsorship of the Taliban and jihadis in general, Washington refused to confront Pakistan, and thereby opened the way for the resurgence of the Taliban after 2003, which neither the US nor Nato has been able to reverse.

Al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and other jihadi groups are the offspring of America’s strange alliance with Saudi Arabia, a theocratic absolute monarchy, and Pakistani military intelligence. If this alliance had not existed, then 9/11 would not have happened. And because the US, with Britain never far behind, refused to break with these two Sunni powers, jihadism survived and prospered after 9/11.

Following a brief retreat, it took advantage of the turmoil created by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, later, by the Arab uprisings of 2011, to expand explosively. Twelve years after the “war on terror” was launched it has visibly failed and al-Qa’ida-type jihadis, once confined to a few camps in Afghanistan, today rule whole provinces in the heart of the Middle East.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of  Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq