Monthly Archives: November 2015

Humor: The Borowitz Report

Borowitz Report

Fiorina: I Will Not Be Bullied Into Telling Truth

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Credit Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty

NEW YORK (The Borowitz Report)—Calling criticism of her misrepresentations about Planned Parenthood “typical left-wing tactics,” the Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina said, on Sunday, “I will not be bullied into telling the truth.”

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” the former Hewlett-Packard C.E.O. denied that spreading misinformation about Planned Parenthood was “in any way incendiary,” but added, “What is truly incendiary is demanding that someone who is seeking the highest office in the land stop lying.”

Fiorina noted that many of her rivals for the Republican nomination—including Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz—had successfully used lying as a key element of their campaign strategies. “All I am trying to do is level the playing field,” she said.

Additionally, she argued that she had not singled out Planned Parenthood as the subject of falsehoods during her campaign. “Look at the things I have said about my tenure at Hewlett-Packard,” she said. “I have steadfastly avoided facts from day one.”

Striking a defiant note, she said that she refused to allow a “tiny cabal of left-wing truth-fetishists” break her resolve. “Anyone who thinks I’m going to start suddenly telling the truth doesn’t know what Carly Fiorina is made of,” she said.

Naked Capitalism on Corruption in State Governments

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What Are the Only 3 States That Score Higher Than a D+ in the Corruption Index?

Lambert here: I’m afraid my own state, Maine, doesn’t do very well; we get an F, and a ranking of 43. Up here, we like to think of ourselves as clean, like the snow, except near the mills, but watching the progress, or regress, of our landfill has taught me that’s not so. (It’s also taught me that today’s Democrats aren’t any cleaner than the Republicans, a factor that partly accounts for the election and re-election of Governor LePage.) Our problems with corruption are compounded by term limits, which ensure that the only institutional memory in Augusta comes from lobbyists and their lawyers.

Of course, in our neoliberal era, it’s only natural that the offices of the state should be on the market, like everything else. If that seems a bit ancien regime, that’s because it is.

By Nicholas Kusnetz, who reports on state government corruption and transparency for the State Integrity InvestigationOriginally published at Alternet.

In November 2014, Arkansas voters approved a ballot measure that, among other reforms, barred the state’s elected officials from accepting lobbyists’ gifts. But that hasn’t stopped influence peddlers from continuing toprovide meals to lawmakers at the luxurious Capital Hotel or in top Little Rock eateries like the Brave New Restaurant; the prohibition does not apply to “food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body is invited,” so lobbyists can buy meals so long as they invite an entire legislative committee.

Such loopholes are a common part of statehouse culture nationwide, according to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The comprehensive probe found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists. Meanwhile, feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs.

Take the Missouri lawmaker who introduced a bill this year — which passed despite a veto by the governor — to prohibit cities from banning plastic bags at grocery stores. The state representative cited concern for shoppers, but he also happens to be state director of the Missouri Grocers Association, and is just one of several lawmakers in the state who pushed bills that synced with their private interests.

Or the lobbyist who, despite a $50 cap on gifts to Idaho state lawmakers, spent $2,250 in 2013 to host a state senator and his wife at the annual Governors Cup charity golf tournament in Sun Valley; the prohibition does not apply to such lobbying largess as long as the money is not spent “in return for action” on a particular bill.

In Delaware, the Public Integrity Commission, which oversees lobbying and ethics laws for the executive branch there, has just two full-time employees. A2013 report by a special state prosecutor found that the agency was unable “to undertake any serious inquiry or investigation into potential wrongdoing.”

And in New Mexico, lawmakers passed a resolution in 2013 declaring that their emails are exempt from public records laws — a rule change that did not require the governor’s signature. “I think it’s up to me to decide if you can have my record,” one representative said.

These are among the practices illuminated by the State Integrity Investigation, which measured hundreds of variables to compile transparency and accountability grades for all 50 states. The results are nothing short of stunning. The best grade in the nation, which went toAlaska, is just a C. Only two others earned better than a D+; 11 states received failing grades. The findings may be deflating to the two-thirds of Americans who, according to a recent poll, now look to the states for policy solutions as gridlock and partisanship have overtaken Washington D.C.

The top of the pack includes bastions of progressive government, including California (ranked 2nd with a C-), and states notorious for corrupt pasts (Connecticut, 3rd with a C-, and Rhode Island, 5th with a D+). In those New England states, scandals led to significant reforms and relatively robust ethics laws, even if dubious dealings linger in the halls of government. The bottom includes many western states that champion limited government, like NevadaSouth Dakota and Wyoming, but also others, such as MaineDelaware and dead-last Michigan, that have not adopted the types of ethics and open records laws common in many other states.

The results are “disappointing but not surprising,” said Paula A. Franzese, an expert in state and local government ethics at Seton Hall University School of Law and former chairwoman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission. Franzese said that, with many states still struggling financially, ethics oversight in particular is among the last issues to receive funding. “It’s not the sort of issue that commands voters,” she said.

With a few notable exceptions, there has been little progress on these issues since the State Integrity Investigation was first carried out, in 2012. In fact, most scores have dropped since then, though some of that is due to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology.

Since State Integrity’s first go-round, at least 12 states have seen their legislative leaders or top cabinet-level officials charged, convicted or resign as a result of ethics or corruption-related scandal. Five house or assembly leaders have fallen. No state has outdone New York, where 14 lawmakers have left office since the beginning of 2012 due to ethical or criminal issues, according to a count by Citizens Union, an advocacy group. That does not include the former leaders of both the Assembly and the Senate, who were charged in unrelated corruption schemes earlier this year but remain in office.

New York is not remarkable, however, in at least one regard: Only one of those 14 lawmakers has been sanctioned by the state’s ethics commission.

Grading the States

When first conducted in 2011-2012, the State Integrity Investigation was an unprecedented look at the systems that state governments use to prevent corruption and expose it when it does occur. Unlike many other examinations of the issue, the project does not attempt to measure corruption itself.

The 2015 grades are based on 245 questions that ask about key indicators of transparency and accountability, looking not only at what the laws say, but also how well they’re enforced or implemented. The “indicators” are divided into 13 categories: public access to information, political financing, electoral oversight, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, state budget processes, state civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, state pension fund management and ethics enforcement agencies.

Experienced journalists in each state undertook exhaustive research and reporting to score each of the questions, which ask, for example, whether lawmakers are required to file financial interest disclosures, and also whether they are complete and detailed. The results are both intuitive — an F for New York’s “three men in a room” budget process — and surprising — Illinois earned the best grade in the nation for its procurement practices. All together, the project presents a comprehensive look at transparency, accountability and ethics in state government. It’s not a pretty picture.

Downward Trend, Blips of Daylight

Overall, states scored notably worse in this second round. Some of that decline is because of changes to the project, such as the addition of questions asking about “open data” policies, which call on governments to publish information online in formats that are easy to download and analyze. But the drop also reflects moves toward greater secrecy in some states.

“Across the board, accessing government has always been, but is increasingly, a barrier to people from every reform angle,” said Jenny Rose Flanagan, vice president for state operations at Common Cause, a national advocacy group with chapters in most states.

No state saw its score fall farther than New Jersey, where scandal after scandal seems to have sunk Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential aspirations deep into the muck of the state’s brawling, back-scratching political history. New Jersey earned a B+, the best score in the nation, in 2012 — shocking just about anyone familiar with the state’s politics — thanks to tough ethics and anti-corruption laws that had been passed over the previous decade in response to a series of scandals.

None of that has changed. But journalists, advocates and academics have accused the Christie administration of fighting and delaying potentially damaging public records requests and meddling in the affairs of the State Ethics Commission. That’s on top of Bridgegate, the sprawling scandal that began as a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge but has led to the indictments so far of one of the governor’s aides and two of his appointees — one of whom pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges — and even to the resignations of top executives at United Airlines. As a result of these scandals and others, New Jersey dropped to 19th place overall with a D grade.

Admittedly, it’s not all doom and gloom. Iowa created an independent board with authority to mediate disputes when agencies reject public records requests. Gov. Terry Branstad cited the state’s previous grade from the Center when he signed the bill, and the move helped catapult Iowa to first in the nation in the category for access to information, with a C- grade (Iowa’s overall score actually dropped modestly).

In Georgia, good government groups latched on to the state’s worst-in-the-nation rank in 2012 to amplify their ongoing push for reforms. The result was a modest law the following year that created a $75 cap on the value of lobbyists’ gifts to public officials. The change helped boost the state’s score in the category of legislative accountability to a C-, sixth-best in the nation.

Perhaps the most dramatic reforms came in Virginia, where scandal engulfed the administration of outgoing Gov. Robert McDonnell in 2013 after it emerged that he and his family had accepted more than $170,000 in loans and gifts, much of it undisclosed, from a Virginia businessman. McDonnell and his wife were later convicted on federal corruption charges, but the case underscored the state’s woefully lax ethics laws and oversight regime; Virginia received an overall F grade in 2012. At the time, there was no limit on the value of gifts that public officials could accept, and they were not required to disclose gifts to their immediate family, a clause that McDonnell grasped at to argue that he had complied with state laws. (Appeals of the McDonnells’ convictions are pending.)

Over the next two years, newly-elected Gov. Terry McAuliffe and lawmakers passed a series of executive actions and laws that eventually led, in 2015, to a $100 cap on gifts to public officials from lobbyists and people seeking state business. They also created an ethics council that will advise lawmakers but will not have the power to issue sanctions. Advocates for ethics reform have said the changes, while significant, fall far short of what’s needed, particularly the creation of an ethics commission with enforcement powers. Still, they helped push the state’s grade up to a D.

States also continued to score relatively well in the categories for auditing practices — 29 earned B- or better — and for budget transparency — 16 got a B- or above (the category measures whether the budget process is transparent, with sufficient checks and balances, not whether it’s well managed).

In Idaho, for example, which earned an A and the second best score for its budget process, the public is free to watch the Legislature’s joint budget committee meetings. Those not able to make it to Boise can watch by streaming video. Citizens can provide input during hearings and can view the full budget bill online.

New York earned the top score for its auditing practices — a B+ — because of its robustly-funded state comptroller’s office, which is headed by an elected official who is largely protected from interference by the governor or Legislature. The office issues an annual report, which is publicly available, and has shown little hesitation to go after state agencies, such as in a recent audit that identified $500 million in waste in the state’s Medicaid program.

Unfortunately, however, such bright spots are the exceptions.

Access Denied

In 2013, George LeVines submitted a request for records to the Massachusetts State Police, asking for controlled substance seizure reports at state prisons dating back seven years. LeVines, who at the time was assistant editor at Muckrock, a news website and records-request repository, soon received a response from the agency saying he could have copies of the reports, but they would cost him $130,000. While LeVines is quick to admit that his request was extremely broad, the figure shocked him nonetheless.

“I wouldn’t have ever expected getting that just scot-free, that does cost money,” he said. But $130,000? “It’s insane.”

The cost was prohibitive, and LeVines withdrew his request. The Massachusetts State Police has become a notorious steel trap of information — it’s charged tens of thousands of dollars or even, in one case, $2.7 million to produce documents — and was awarded this year with the tongue-in-cheek Golden Padlock award by a national journalism organization, which each year “honors” an agency or public official for its “abiding commitment to secrecy and impressive skill in information suppression.”

Dave Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, said in an email that the department is committed to transparency, but that its records are laced with sensitive information that’s exempt from disclosure and that reviewing the material is time consuming and expensive. “While we most certainly agree that the public has a right to information not legally exempt from disclosure,” he wrote, “we will not cut corners for the purpose of expediency or economy if doing so means that private personal, medi[c]al, or criminal history information is inappropriately released.”

It’s not just the police. Both the Legislature and the judicial branch are at least partly exempt from Massachusetts’ public records law. Governors have cited a state Supreme Court ruling to argue that they, too, are exempt, though chief executives often comply with requests anyway. A review by The Boston Globe found that the secretary of state’s office, the first line of appeal for rejected requests, had ruled in favor of those seeking records in only 1-in-5 cases. Needless to say, Massachusetts earned an F in the category for public access to information. But so did 43 other states, making this the worst performing category in the State Integrity Investigation.

While every state in the nation has open records and meetings laws, they’re typically shot through with holes and exemptions and usually have essentially no enforcement mechanisms, beyond the court system, when agencies refuse to comply. In most states, at least one entire branch of government or agency claims exemptions from the laws. Many agencies routinely fail to explain why they they’ve denied requests. Public officials charge excessive fees to discourage requestors. In the vast majority of states, citizens are unable to quickly and affordably resolve appeals when their records are denied. Only one state — Missouri — received a perfect score on a question asking whether citizens actually receive responses to their requests swiftly and at reasonable cost.

“We’re seeing increased secrecy throughout the country at the state and federal level,” said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism and an expert on open records laws. He said substantial research shows that the nation’s open records laws have been poked and prodded to include a sprawling list of exemptions and impediments, and that public officials increasingly use those statutes to deny access to records. “It’s getting worse every year,” he said.

After a series of shootings by police officers in New Mexico, the Santa Fe New Mexican published a report about controversial changes made to the state-run training academy. But when a reporter requested copies of the new curriculum, the program’s director refused, saying “I’ll burn them before you get them.”

In January, The Wichita Eagle reported that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget director had used his private email address to send details of a proposed budget to the private email accounts of fellow staff members, and also to a pair of lobbyists. He later said he did so only because he and the rest of the staff were home for the holidays. But in May, Brownback acknowledged that he, too, used a private email account to communicate with staff, meaning his correspondence was not subject to the state’s public records laws. A state council is now studying how to close the loophole. A series of court cases in California are examining a similar question there.

Cuillier said in most states, courts or others have determined that discussions of public business are subject to disclosure, no matter whether the email or phone used was public or private. But the debate is indicative of a larger problem, and it reveals public records laws as the crazy old uncle of government statutes: toothless, antiquated appendages of a bygone era.

Weak ethics oversight

Governments write ethics laws for a reason, presumably. Public officials can’t always be trusted to do the right thing; we need laws to make sure they do. The trouble is, a law is only as good as its enforcement, and the entities responsible for overseeing ethics are often impotent and ineffective.

In many states, a complex mix of legislative committees, stand-alone commissions and law enforcement agencies police the ethics laws. And more often than not, the State Integrity Investigation shows, those entities are underfunded, subject to political interference or are simply unable or unwilling to initiate investigations and issue sanctions when rules are broken. Or at least that’s as far as the public can tell: many of these bodies operate largely in secret.

The Tennessee Ethics Commission, for example, rose in 2006 out of the ashes of an FBI bribery probe that had burned four state lawmakers. In its decade of operation, the commission has never issued a penalty as a result of an ethics complaint against a public official (it did issue one to a lobbyist). That may seem surprising, but the dearth of actions is impossible to assess because the complaints become public only if four of six commissioners decide they warrant investigation. Of 17 complaints received in 2013 and 2014, only two are public.

“There just haven’t been that many valid complaints alleging wrongdoing,” said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, which includes the commission.

In 2013, in a case that did become public, the commission decided against issuing a fine to a powerful lobbyist and former adviser to Gov. Bill Haslam who had failed to disclose that he’d lobbied on behalf of a mining company that was seeking a state contract. The lobbyist had maintained that his failure was simply an oversight, and only one commissioner voted to issue a penalty.

In Kansas, staff shortages mean the state’s Governmental Ethics Commission is unable to fully audit lawmakers’ financial disclosures, according to Executive Director Carol Williams. “We would love to be able to do more comprehensive audits,” Williams told the investigation’s Kansas reporter. Instead, she said, all her staff can do is make sure officials are filling out the forms. “Whether they are correct or not, we don’t know.” Only two states initiate comprehensive, independent audits of lawmakers’ asset disclosures on an annual basis.

The State Integrity Investigation found that in two-thirds of all states, ethics agencies or committees routinely fail to initiate investigations or impose sanctions when necessary, often because they’re unable to do so without first receiving a complaint.

“Many of these laws are out of date. They need to be revised,” said Robert Stern, who spent decades as president of the Center for Governmental Studies, which worked with local and state governments to improve ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws until it shut in 2011. Stern, who is currently helping to write a ballot initiative that would update California’s ethics statutes, said that while he thinks the State Integrity Investigation grades are unrealistically harsh, they do reflect the fact that state lawmakers have neglected their responsibilities when it comes to ethics and transparency. “It’s very, very difficult for legislatures to focus on these things and improve them because they don’t want these laws, they don’t want to enforce them, and they don’t want to fund the people enforcing them.”

In 3-in-5 states, the project found, ethics entities are inadequately funded, causing staff to be overloaded with work and, occasionally, forcing them to delay investigations.

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission is charged with overseeing ethics laws for the executive and legislative branches, lobbying activity and campaign finance. This year, the commission operated on a budget of $1 million. In 2014, the nonprofit news site Oklahoma Watch reported that the commission had collected only 40 percent of all the late-filing penalties it had assessed to candidates, committees and other groups since it was created in 1990. Part of that failure was the result of a challenge to the commission’s rules, but Executive Director Lee Slater said that much of it was simply due to a lack of resources.

“Until about a month ago, we had five employees in this office,” Slater said. “We’ve now got six. Try to do it with six employees.” Slater said the commission this year began collecting all fees it is owed, thanks to the sixth employee — whose salary is financed with fees — and new rules that clarify its authority. But he said the agency simply does not have enough money to do what it ought to. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we do everything we should,” he said. “But I will tell you that we do the best that we can, whatever that is.”

Slater said he’s been told to expect a cut of between 5 and 20 percent to the commission’s appropriations next year ($775,000 of the commission’s current budget comes from appropriations).

Oklahoma is hardly an outlier. “They don’t have the resources,” Stern said, speaking of similar agencies across the country. “That’s the problem.”

New Frontier Points to Old Problem

Not long ago, journalists and citizen watchdogs were thrilled to get access to any type of information online. But standards have changed quickly, and many have come to expect government to not just publish data online, but to do so in “open data” formats that allow users to download and analyze the information.

“By making data available digitally, it can be more easily reused and repurposed,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group. (Global Integrity consulted with the Sunlight Foundation when writing the open data questions for this project).

Only nine states have adopted open data measures, according to the Sunlight Foundation, some of which do little more than create an advisory panel to study the issue.

The 2015 State Integrity Investigation included questions in each category asking whether governments are meeting open data principles. Almost universally, the answer was no. More than anything, these scores were responsible for dragging down the grades since the first round of the project.

While open data principles are relatively new, the poor performance on these questions is indicative of the project’s findings as a whole. “If we really wanted to do it right we’d just scrap it all and start from scratch,” said Cuillier, of the University of Arizona, speaking of the broken state of open records and accessibility laws. That clearly is not going to happen, he said, so instead, “we’re going to continue to have laws that are archaic and tinkered with, and usually in the wrong direction.”

This articles draws on reporting from State Integrity Investigation reporters in all 50 states.

Naked Capitalism on Bringing “Democracy” to Africa

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AFRICOM’s New Math, the U.S. Base Bonanza, and “Scarier” Times Ahead in Africa

Lambert here: Not content with setting the Mediterranean/Black Sea littoral ablaze, we’re going for the entire continent of Africa. Now we can blow black wedding parties to pink mist with drone strikes, not just brown ones. So awesome. Moar blowback.

By Nick Turse, managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his book Kill Anything That Moves, his latest book is Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in AfricaOriginally published at TomDispatch.

In the shadows of what was once called the “dark continent,” a scramble has come and gone. If you heard nothing about it, that was by design. But look hard enough and — north to south, east to west — you’ll find the fruits of that effort: a network of bases, compounds, and other sites whose sum total exceeds the number of nations on the continent. For a military that has stumbled from Iraq to Afghanistan and suffered setbacks from Libya to Syria, it’s a rare can-do triumph. In remote locales, behind fences and beyond the gaze of prying eyes, the U.S. military has built an extensive archipelago of African outposts, transforming the continent, experts say, into a laboratory for a new kind of war.

So how many U.S. military bases are there in Africa? It’s a simple question with a simple answer. For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) gave a stock response: one. Camp Lemonnier in the tiny, sun-bleached nation of Djibouti was America’s only acknowledged “base” on the continent. It wasn’t true, of course, because there were camps, compounds, installations, and facilities elsewhere, but the military leaned hard on semantics.

Take a look at the Pentagon’s official list of bases, however, and the number grows. The 2015 report on the Department of Defense’s global property portfolio lists Camp Lemonnier and three other deep-rooted sites on or near the continent: U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3, a medical research facility in Cairo, Egypt, that was established in 1946; Ascension Auxiliary Airfield, a spacecraft tracking station and airfield located 1,000 miles off the coast of West Africa that has been used by the U.S. since 1957; and warehouses at the airport and seaport in Mombasa, Kenya, that were built in the 1980s.

That’s only the beginning, not the end of the matter. For years, various reporters have shed light on hush-hush outposts— most of them built, upgraded, or expanded since 9/11 — dotting the continent, including so-called cooperative security locations (CSLs). Earlier this year, AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez disclosed that there were actually 11 such sites. Again, devoted AFRICOM-watchers knew that this, too, was just the start of a larger story, but when I asked Africa Command for a list of bases, camps and other sites, as I periodically have done, I was treated like a sap.

“In all, AFRICOM has access to 11 CSLs across Africa. Of course, we have one major military facility on the continent: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti,” Anthony Falvo, AFRICOM’s Public Affairs chief, told me. Falvo was peddling numbers that both he and I know perfectly well are, at best, misleading. “It’s one of the most troubling aspects of our military policy in Africa, and overseas generally, that the military can’t be, and seems totally resistant to being, honest and transparent about what it’s doing,” says David Vine, author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World.

Research by TomDispatch indicates that in recent years the U.S. military has, in fact, developed a remarkably extensive network of more than 60 outposts and access points in Africa. Some are currently being utilized, some are held in reserve, and some may be shuttered. These bases, camps, compounds, port facilities, fuel bunkers, and other sites can be found in at least 34 countries — more than 60% of the nations on the continent — many of them corruptrepressive states with poor human rights records. The U.S. also operates “Offices of Security Cooperation and Defense Attaché Offices in approximately 38 [African] nations,” according to Falvo, and has struck close to 30 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers.

There is no reason to believe that even this represents a complete accounting of America’s growing archipelago of African outposts. Although it’s possible that a few sites are being counted twice due to AFRICOM’s failure to provide basic information or clarification, the list TomDispatch has developed indicates that the U.S. military has created a network of bases that goes far beyond what AFRICOM has disclosed to the American public, let alone to Africans.

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U.S. military outposts, port facilities, and other areas of access in Africa, 2002-2015 (Nick Turse/TomDispatch, 2015) 

AFRICOM’s Base Bonanza

When AFRICOM became an independent command in 2008, Camp Lemonnier was reportedly still one of the few American outposts on the continent. In the years since, the U.S. has embarked on nothing short of a building boom — even if the command is loath to refer to it in those terms. As a result, it’s now able to carry out increasing numbers of overt and covert missions, from training exercises to drone assassinations.

“AFRICOM, as a new command, is basically a laboratory for a different kind of warfare and a different way of posturing forces,” says Richard Reeve, the director of the Sustainable Security Programme at the Oxford Research Group, a London-based think tank. “Apart from Djibouti, there’s no significant stockpiling of troops, equipment, or even aircraft. There are a myriad of ‘lily pads’ or small forward operating bases… so you can spread out even a small number of forces over a very large area and concentrate those forces quite quickly when necessary.”

Indeed, U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations, forward operating locations (FOLs), and other outposts — many of them involved in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and Special Operations missions — have been built (or built up) in Burkina FasoCameroon, the Central African RepublicChadDjiboutiEthiopiaGabonGhanaKenyaMaliNigerSenegalthe SeychellesSomaliaSouth Sudan, and Uganda. A 2011 report by Lauren Ploch, an analyst in African affairs with the Congressional Research Service, also mentioned U.S. military access to locations in Algeria, Botswana, Namibia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, and Zambia. AFRICOM failed to respond to scores of requests by this reporter for further information about its outposts and related matters, but an analysis of open source information, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and other records show a persistent, enduring, and growing U.S. presence on the continent.

“A cooperative security location is just a small location where we can come in… It would be what you would call a very austere location with a couple of warehouses that has things like: tents, water, and things like that,” explained AFRICOM’s Rodriguez. As he implies, the military doesn’t consider CSLs to be “bases,” but whatever they might be called, they are more than merely a few tents and cases of bottled water.

Designed to accommodate about 200 personnel, with runways suitable for C-130 transport aircraft, the sites are primed for conversion from temporary, bare-bones facilities into something more enduring. At least three of them in Senegal, Ghana, and Gabon are apparently designed to facilitate faster deployment for a rapid reaction unit with a mouthful of a moniker: Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa (SPMAGTF-CR-AF). Its forces are based in Morón, Spain, and Sigonella, Italy, but are focused on Africa. They rely heavily on MV-22 Ospreys, tilt-rotor aircraft that can take-off, land, and hover like helicopters, but fly with the speed and fuel efficiency of a turboprop plane.

This combination of manpower, access, and technology has come to be known in the military by the moniker “New Normal.” Birthed in the wake of the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the New Normal effectively allows the U.S. military quick access 400 miles inland from any CSL or, as Richard Reeve notes, gives it “a reach that extends to just about every country in West and Central Africa.”

The concept was field-tested as South Sudan plunged into civil war and 160 Marines and sailors from Morón were forward deployed to Djibouti in late 2013. Within hours, a contingent from that force was sent to Uganda and, in early 2014, in conjunction with another rapid reaction unit, dispatched to South Sudan to evacuate 20 people from the American embassy in Juba. Earlier this year, SPMAGTF-CR-AF ran trials at its African staging areas including the CSL in Libreville, Gabon, deploying nearly 200 Marines and sailors along with four Ospreys, two C-130s, and more than 150,000 pounds of materiel.

A similar test run was carried out at the Senegal CSL located at Dakar-Ouakam Air Base, which can also host 200 Marines and the support personnel necessary to sustain and transport them. “What the CSL offers is the ability to forward-stage our forces to respond to any type of crisis,” Lorenzo Armijo, an operations officer with SPMAGTF-CR-AF, told a military reporter. “That crisis can range in the scope of military operations from embassy reinforcement to providing humanitarian assistance.”

Another CSL, mentioned in a July 2012 briefing by U.S. Army Africa, is located in Entebbe, Uganda. From there, according to a Washington Post investigation, U.S. contractors have flown surveillance missions using innocuous-looking turboprop airplanes. “The AFRICOM strategy is to have a very light touch, a light footprint, but nevertheless facilitate special forces operations or ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] detachments over a very wide area,” Reeve says. “To do that they don’t need very much basing infrastructure, they need an agreement to use a location, basic facilities on the ground, a stockpile of fuel, but they also can rely on private contractors to maintain a number of facilities so there aren’t U.S. troops on the ground.”

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U.S. Army Africa briefing slide from 2012 detailing work at the Entebbe CSL

The Outpost Archipelago

AFRICOM ignored my requests for further information on CSLs and for the designations of other outposts on the continent, but according to a 2014 article in Army Sustainment on “Overcoming Logistics Challenges in East Africa,” there are also “at least nine forward operating locations, or FOLs.” A 2007 Defense Department news release referred to an FOL in Charichcho, Ethiopia. The U.S. military also utilizes “Forward Operating Location Kasenyi” in Kampala, Uganda. A 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office mentioned forward operating locations in Isiolo and Manda Bay, both in Kenya.

Camp Simba in Manda Bay has, in fact, seen significant expansion in recent years. In 2013, Navy Seabees, for example, worked 24-hour shifts to extend its runway to enable larger aircraft like C-130s to land there, while other projects were initiated to accommodate greater numbers of troops in the future, including increased fuel and potable water storage, and more latrines. The base serves as a home away from home for Navy personnel and Army Green Berets among other U.S. troops and, as recently revealed at the Intercept, plays an integral role in the secret drone assassination program aimed at militants in neighboring Somalia as well as in Yemen.

Drones have played an increasingly large role in this post-9/11 build-up in Africa. MQ-1 Predators have, for instance, been based in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, while their newer, larger, more far-ranging cousins, MQ-9 Reapers, have been flown out of Seychelles International Airport. As of June 2012, according to the Intercept, two contractor-operated drones, one Predator and one Reaper, were based in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, while a detachment with one Scan Eagle (a low-cost drone used by the Navy) and a remotely piloted helicopter known as an MQ-8 Fire Scoutoperated off the coast of East Africa. The U.S. also recently began setting up a base in Cameroon for unarmed Predators to be used in the battle against Boko Haram militants.

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U.S. Army Africa briefing slide from 2013 obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act

In February 2013, the U.S. also began flying Predator drones out of Niger’s capital, Niamey. A year later, Captain Rick Cook, then chief of U.S. Africa Command’s Engineer Division, mentioned the potential for a new “base-like facility” that would be “semi-permanent” and “capable of air operations” in that country. That September, the Washington Post‘s Craig Whitlock exposed plans to base drones at a second location there, Agadez. Within days, the U.S. Embassy in Niamey announced that AFRICOM was, indeed, “assessing the possibility of establishing a temporary, expeditionary contingency support location in Agadez, Niger.”

Earlier this year, Captain Rodney Worden of AFRICOM’s Logistics and Support Division mentioned “a partnering and capacity-building project… for the Niger Air Force and Armed Forces in concert with USAFRICOM and [U.S.] Air Forces Africa to construct a runway and associated work/life support area for airfield operations.” And when the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 was introduced in April, embedded in it was a $50 million request for the construction of an “airfield and base camp at Agadez, Niger… to support operations in western Africa.” When Congress recently passed the annual defense policy bill, that sum was authorized.

According to Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, there is also a team of Special Operations forces currently “living right next to” local troops in Diffa, Niger. A 2013 military briefing slide, obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act, indicates a “U.S. presence” as well in Ouallam, Niger, and at both Bamako and Kidal in neighboring Mali. Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a country that borders both of those nations, plays host to a Special Operations Forces Liaison Element Team, a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, and the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative which, according to official documents, facilitates “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara.

On the other side of the continent in Somalia, elite U.S. forces are operating from small compounds in Kismayo and Baledogle, according to reporting by Foreign Policy. Neighboring Ethiopia has similarly been a prime locale for American outposts, including Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, contingency operating locations at both Hurso and Bilate, and facilities used by a 40-man team based in Bara. So-called Combined Operations Fusion Centers were set up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan as part of an effort to destroy Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Washington Post investigations have revealed that U.S. forces have also been based in DjemaSam Ouandja, and Obo, in the Central African Republic as part of that effort. There has recently been new construction by Navy Seabees at Obo to increase the camp’s capacity as well as to install the infrastructure for a satellite dish.

There are other locations that, while not necessarily outposts, nonetheless form critical nodes in the U.S. base network on the continent. These include 10 marine gas and oil bunkers located at ports in eight African nations. Additionally, AFRICOM acknowledges an agreement to use Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling as well as for the “transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities.” A similar deal is in place for the use of Kitgum Airport in Kitgum, Uganda, and Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia. All told, according to the Defense Logistics Agency, the U.S. military has struck 29 agreements to use airports as refueling centers in 27 African countries.

Not all U.S. bases in Africa have seen continuous use in these years. After the American-backed military overthrew the government of Mauritania in 2008, for example, the U.S. suspended an airborne surveillance program based in its capital, Nouakchott. Following a coup in Mali by a U.S.-trained officer, the United States suspended military relations with the government and a spartan U.S. compound near the town of Gao was apparently overrun by rebel forces.

Most of the new outposts on that continent, however, seem to be putting down roots. As TomDispatch regular and basing expert David Vine suggests, “The danger of the strategy in which you see U.S. bases popping up increasingly around the continent is that once bases get established they become very difficult to close. Once they generate momentum, within Congress and in terms of funding, they have a tendency to expand.”

To supply its troops in East Africa, AFRICOM has also built a sophisticated logistics system. It’s officially known as the Surface Distribution Network, but colloquially referred to as the “new spice route.” It connects Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. These hubs are, in turn, part of a transportation and logistics network that includes bases located in Rota, Spain; Aruba in the Lesser Antilles; Souda Bay, Greece; and a forward operating site on Britain’s Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.

Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, headquarters of U.S. Air Forces Europe and one of the largest American military bases outside the United States, is another key site. As the Intercept reported earlier this year, it serves as “the high-tech heart of America’s drone program” for the Greater Middle East and Africa. Germany is also host to AFRICOM’s headquarters, located at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart-Moehringen, itself a site reportedly integral to drone operations in Africa.

In addition to hosting a contingent of the Marines and sailors of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa, Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily, Italy, is another important logistics facility for African operations. The second-busiest military air station in Europe, Sigonella is a key hub for drones covering Africa, serving as a basefor MQ-1 Predators and RQ-4B Global Hawk surveillance drones.

The Crown Jewels

Back on the continent, the undisputed crown jewel in the U.S. archipelago of bases is indeed still Camp Lemonnier. To quote Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, it is “a hub with lots of spokes out there on the continent and in the region.” Sharing a runway with Djibouti’s Ambouli International Airport, the sprawling compound is the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa and is home to the East Africa Response Force, another regional quick-reaction unit. The camp, which also serves as the forward headquarters for Task Force 48-4, a hush-hush counterterrorism unit targeting militants in East Africa and Yemen, has seen personnel stationed there jump by more than 400% since 2002.

In the same period, Camp Lemonnier has expanded from 88 acres to nearly 600 acres and is in the midst of a years-long building boom for which more than $600 million has already been awarded or allocated. In late 2013, for example, B.L. Harbert International, an Alabama-based construction company, was awarded a $150 million contract by the Navy for “the P-688 Forward Operating Base at Camp Lemonnier.” According to a corporate press release, “the site is approximately 20 acres in size, and will contain 11 primary structures and ancillary facilities required to support current and emerging operational missions throughout the region.”

In 2014, the Navy completed construction of a $750,000 secure facility for Special Operations Command Forward-East Africa (SOCFWD-EA). It is one of three similar teams on the continent — the others being SOCFWD-Central Africa and SOCFWD-North and West Africa — which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.”

In 2012, according to secret documents recently revealed by the Intercept, 10 Predator drones and four Reaper drones were based at Camp Lemonnier, along with six U-28As (a single-engine aircraft that conducts surveillance for special operations forces) and two P-3 Orions (a four-engine turboprop surveillance aircraft). There were also eight F-15E Strike Eagles, heavily armed, manned fighter jets. By August 2012, an average of 16 drones and four fighters were taking off or landing at the base each day.

The next year, in the wake of a number of drone crashes and turmoil involving Djiboutian air traffic controllers, drone operations were moved to a more remote site located about six miles away. Djibouti’s Chabelley Airfield, which has seen significant construction of late and has a much lower profile than Camp Lemonnier, now serves as a key base for America’s regional drone campaign. Dan Gettinger, the co-founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, recently told the Intercept that the operations run from the site were “JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] and CIA-led missions for the most part,” explaining that they were likely focused on counterterrorism strikes in Somalia and Yemen, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities, as well as support for the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen.

A Scarier Future

Over many months, AFRICOM repeatedly ignored even basic questions from this reporter about America’s sweeping archipelago of bases. In practical terms, that means there is no way to know with complete certainty how many of the more than 60 bases, bunkers, outposts, and areas of access are currently being used by U.S. forces or how many additional sites may exist. What does seem clear is that the number of bases and other sites, however defined, is increasing, mirroring the rise in the number of U.S. troops, special operations deployments, and missions in Africa.

“There’s going to be a network of small bases with maybe a couple of medium-altitude, long-endurance drones at each one, so that anywhere on the continent is always within range,” says the Oxford Research Group’s Richard Reeve when I ask him for a forecast of the future. In many ways, he notes, this has already begun everywhere but in southern Africa, not currently seen by the U.S. military as a high-risk area.

The Obama administration, Reeve explains, has made use of humanitarian rhetoric as a cover for expansion on the continent. He points in particular to the deployment of forces against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, the build-up of forces near Lake Chad in the effort against Boko Haram, and the post-Benghazi New Normal concept as examples. “But, in practice, what is all of this going to be used for?” he wonders. After all, the enhanced infrastructure and increased capabilities that today may be viewed by the White House as an insurance policy against another Benghazi can easily be repurposed in the future for different types of military interventions.

“Where does this go post-Obama?” Reeve asks rhetorically, noting that the rise of AFRICOM and the proliferation of small outposts have been “in line with the Obama doctrine.” He draws attention to the president’s embrace of a lighter-footprint brand of warfare, specifically a reliance on Special Operations forces and drones. This may, Reeve adds, just be a prelude to something larger and potentially more dangerous.

“Where would Hillary take this?” he asks, referencing the hawkish Democratic primary frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. “Or any of the Republican potentials?” He points to the George W. Bush administration as an example and raises the question of what it might have done back in the early 2000s if AFRICOM’s infrastructure had already been in place. Such a thought experiment, he suggests, could offer clues to what the future might hold now that the continent is dotted with American outposts, drone bases, and compounds for elite teams of Special Operations forces. “I think,” Reeve says, “that we could be looking at something a bit scarier in Africa.”

Naked Capitalism on Student-Loan Debt

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For Profit College, Student Loan Default, and the Economic Impact of Student Loans

Yves here. There’s a lot of important information here on student loans, such as default rates at different borrowing levels and the impact of having student loans on a prospective borrower’s ability to get other credit. One important and surprising finding: the default rate is highest on low loan balances. As Lambert says, you can drown in six inches of water.

By run 75441. Originally published at Angry Bear

For Profit Goes on Probation

The University of Phoenix has been placed on probation by the Department of Defense preventing the university from recruiting on military bases. The probation comes after the Federal Trade Commission and the California Attorney General’s investigation into the University of Phoenix recruiting methods, its high costs, and the resulting poor student performance.

This is not the first time Phoenix-U has been in trouble. In 2013 the University of Phoenix was threatened with probation by the accreditation board for a lack of “‘autonomy’ from its corporate parent -– a development that prevented the university from achieving its ‘mission and successful operation.’” In other words, the for-profit university #1 priority by its owners was to turn a profit at the expense of teaching, retaining, and graduating its students. This is precisely what I had alluded to previously on higher rates of defaults.

Student Loan Defaults

An interesting analysis by the NY Fed suggests students with lower amounts of student loan debt are more likely to default than those students with higher amounts. This is a new take on student loan debt and associated default as it was always thought the higher the debt the greater risk of default. Student Loan Debt has increased as more attend college, costs to attain an undergraduate degree have increased, even higher costs are sustained for Masters and Doctorate degrees, and students have been staying in school longer. Coming out of college the study finds amongst students loan debt is distributed rather evenly over time with one third being held by those in the 20s, one third held by those in the thirties, and one third held by those forty years of age and older. A large percentage of those borrowers or ~39% of them have loans of less than $10,000 and it is the holders of debt who have been defaulting at a higher percentage. The study goes on to break it down as to why they might be defaulting more frequently than tose with higher amounts of debt.

Using Equifax credit data, the NY Fed broke down the data into loan origination cohorts of student loan borrowers and using the same Equifax data, developed default rates for each cohort. Taking the origination date information for each academic year, the Fed was able to assign borrowers to loan-origination-completion-cohorts. The analysis did not reveal dropout or graduation information; however by using loan origination data, the methodology used does approximate whether students left school finished their education or just left school.

Cohort-Default-Rates

As shown on the graph and nine years out for the 2005 and the 2007 cohorts 24% of the students and greater had defaulted on their student loans by the 4th quarter of 2014. While the data for the 2009 cohort is incomplete and depicts five years as opposed to nine years, the data depicts a worsening default rate at 5 years then what can be found with the 2005 and 2007 cohorts at 9 years. Typically what we read and hear about is a 3-year window as reported by the Department of Education and is discussed by the news media. The 3-year window default rate is much less for each of the cohorts with the 2005 cohort being ~1/2 or 13% of what it is in 2014 as shown by the Fed study.

As I mentioned above, a large percentage of those who defaulted had student loan debt of less than $10,000. 34% of those borrowers in that group who defaulted on their student loans had balances of less than $5,000. 21% of the 2009 cohort were in this category of < $5,000 in student loans five years out which depicts a worsening trend when compared. A closer examination of the 34% also reveals this group to be made up of students who attended community college, did not finish, perhaps discovered this is not what they wanted to do, or the curriculum did not fit their needs.

What the NY Fed concludes is the default rate worsens when a much longer period of time is taken into consideration as opposed to the 3 year window the Department of Education looks at and which the public hears about in the news. The longer the period, the higher the default and it continues through years 4 through nine for the first two cohorts. As shown the default rate for the 2009 cohort is already higher. Those who had lower amounts of student debt in the end may have defaulted due to a worsening economy or potentially did not get the payback expected from a two year degree at a community college or for-profit school. The study also revealed those who are current today with their student loans did experience stress in making payments and 63% of those student loan borrowers appear to have avoided delinquency and default over the last decade. On the other side of the coin, student loan borrowers with $100,000 of debt had a default rate of 18% which has been attributed to their being higher earners after graduation.

Economic Impact of Student Loan Debt

Home-Ownership

One aspect of the fall-out resulting from increased student loan debt as suggested by the Fed study is decreased home ownership. From 2008 onward the study depicts a steady decrease in the numbers of graduates burdened by student loans investing in homes. Dropping from a high of ~34% in 2008, the percentage of homeowners and having student loan debt has declined to ~23% in 2014. What has occurred, those 27-30 year old having no student loan debt have surpassed those with student loan debt in home ownership. While both groups experienced a decrease in home ownership during bad economic times, the decrease for those having student loans was far more severe. The decrease in home ownership still continues for both groups with those having less debt owning homes at a higher level.

Auto-Ownership

A similar situation holds true for new auto ownership. The numbers of 25-year old college graduates purchasing automobiles and with student loan debt retreated from the market place at a faster pace than those without student loan debt. It is only recently have increased numbers of both groups returned to the market place to buy automobiles. While the purchase of automobiles has increased for all 25 year old people, the numbers of college grads with student loan debt no longer surpass those without student loan debt and at best are at the same level as those without student loan debt. Student loan debt is a burden and more of a burden in harsher economic times.

Much of the retreat from the market place is due to large loan and higher interest rates on undergraduate student loans, even higher interest rates and balances on graduate and doctorate student loans, higher balances due to the increased costs of colleges across the board, and longevity in paying back student loans. There are no controls on colleges and universities to rein in costs and it is the only cost to increase at a faster rate than healthcare. The higher costs play out in student loan debt as states do not subsidize colleges to the same ratio as they did 20 years ago, Pell Grants have not kept up with the costs of colleges, and parents can not afford the increased cost out of pocket either.

For the purchases of homes, cars, appliances; the bank assesses your ability to repay the loan as these loans can be discharged in bankruptcy unlike student loans which can not be discharged. Many college graduate households today consist of two married adults both of which are burdened with having student loans to pay off making the situation even more precarious. The result is increased risk.

Risk-Rates

The difference in the ability to buy in the market place between younger people with student loans and those without student loans has flip-flopped. While both groups have retreated from major purchases during bad economic times, those with student loan debt retreated at a quicker pace than those without student loan debt and have not regained the prominence they had with banks in the purchase of homes and other items previously. Other than the inability to purchase during bad economic times, a rise in student loan debt by these households may have triggered higher risk levels by banks when looking at credit history. Banks and other loan originators may be more reluctant to loan to those with student loan debt which has changed over the years as new grads were once favored by banks due to higher earning potential. Using the same data, the NY Fed reviewed the risk rates of 25 and 30 year olds with and without student loan debt. As can be expected, those households with student loan debt were deemed a higher risk due to student loan balances and higher interest rates and a decrease of potential income over time. Those students would be less likely to obtain a loan or a loan with lower interest rates. Ahigher interest rate adds to an already high financial burden.

There are probably many other reasons why young households may have retreated from the market place; cultural changes in how younger households view home ownership, automobiles, and other purchases; higher costs of financing; lowered expectations of future earnings; unwillingness to take on more debt, etc. The fact of the matter is, not only does the market place view them as a higher risk; but, these college-educated young buyers are not buying homes, autos, etc. or making large investments at the same level that once existed and it does not bode well for the economy.

It also never ceases to amaze me the number of anti-educational opinions which flare up when the discussion of student loan default arises. There are always those who will prophesize there is no need to attain a higher level of education as anyone could be something else and be successful and not require a higher level of education. Or they come forth with the explanation on how young 18 year-olds and those already struggling should be able to ascertain the risk of higher debt when the cards are already stacked against them legally. In any case during a poor economy, those with more education appear to be employed at a higher rate than those with less education. The issue for those pursuing an education is the ever increasing burden and danger of student loans and associated interest rates which prevent younger people from moving into the economy successfully after graduation, the failure of the government to support higher education and protect students from for-profit fraud, the increased risk of default and becoming indentured to the government, and the increased cost of an education which has surpassed healthcare in rising costs.

There does not appear to be much movement on the part of Congress to reconcile the issues in favor of students as opposed to the non-profit and for profit institutes.

Naked Capitalism: Middle-Age Longevity in U.S. Declines

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“Stunning” Rise in Death Rate, Pain Levels for White Middle-Aged, Less Educated Whites

One of the long standing patterns in economies showing economic growth is longer life spans, and falls are see the result of severe distress and dislocation, as took place in the period right after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the expectancies of adult men fell by over seven years.

The US has just become the first country to approach this appalling record. A stark warning about the level of distress in America comes from an important study by Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel prize winner in economics, and his wife Anne Case. We’ve embedded their short and readable article at the end of this post. The authors found that from 1999 to 2013, the death rate among non-Hispanic whites aged 45 to 54 with a high school education or less rose, while it fell in other age and ethnic groups. This is an HIV-level silent epidemic: AIDS killed an estimated 650,000 from the mid-1980s to present, while an estimated close to half-million died in half that time period who would have lived had their mortality rates fallen in line with the rest of the population. It is hard to overstate the significance of these findings. From the New York Times:

“It is difficult to find modern settings with survival losses of this magnitude,” wrote two Dartmouth economists, Ellen Meara and Jonathan S. Skinner, in a commentary to the Deaton-Case analysis that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This cross-country comparison from the study shows how extreme an outlier these middle aged whites are:

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The big culprits are linked to despair, namely “poisoning” which is opiod abuse first and alcoholism second, and suicides. Case and Deaton dug into the underlying statistics, and found distressingly high levels of pain and impaired health in this age group, so pain and physical impairment may well be bigger culprits than economic distress:

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And the rise in death rates took place among men and women, in all of the four major regions of the country the authors examined, and obesity rates were not a driving factor.

And unlike chaotic post-Soviet Russia, the US does not have a good excuse as to why this has been happening in a period of supposed growth, and even worse, with no one noticing until now. Yes, there have been warning signs of distress, such as the fact that US life expectancy has stopped rising, that death rates among white women had risen (and over the same time period examined in the Case-Deaton study), and that the US is alone among developed countries in having an increasing maternal mortality rate. And even though the chattering classes may not have been aware of the rise in the death rate of whites, it had been troubling researchers for some time. Again from the New York Times:

The analysis by Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case may offer the most rigorous evidence to date of both the causes and implications of a development that has been puzzling demographers in recent years: the declining health and fortunes of poorly educated American whites. In middle age, they are dying at such a high rate that they are increasing the death rate for the entire group of middle-aged white Americans…

“Wow,” said Samuel Preston, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on mortality trends and the health of populations, who was not involved in the research. “This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households.”

But what is telling about the major news reports on the Case-Deaton study, and is similar to the earlier reports I read on the rise in death rates among white women, which when you drilled into the data turned out to be rural white women, is there are none of the usual anecdotes accompanying these stories. The reporters either could not find, or could not be bothered to find, flesh and blood examples of the acute distress that has been, and remains, invisible to the elites of this country. Indeed, the Washington Post almost goes out of its way to depersonalize what is happening. The headline to its story reads, A group of middle-aged whites in the U.S. is dying at a startling rate. Um “groups” do not die, unless they form a suicide pact. Individuals die.

Similarly, the earlier study on deaths of white women and this study stress the big role that Oxy-Contin and other opioids play, as well as alcohol abuse. But the look at the morbidity figures suggests that a significant part of this population is already in poor health, raising the question of what came first, the pain or the substance abuse. From the report:

Increases in midlife mortality are paralleled by increases in self-reported midlife morbidity….The increase in reports of poor health among those in midlife was matched by increased reports of pain. Rows 4–7 of Table 2 present the fraction reporting neck pain, facial pain, chronic joint pain, and sciatica. One in three white non-Hispanics aged 45–54 reported chronic joint pain in the 2011–2013 period; one in five reported neck pain; and one in seven reported sciatica. Reports of all four types of pain increased significantly between 1997−1999 and 2011−2013….

The epidemic of pain which the opioids were designed to treat is real enough, although the data here cannot establish whether the increase in opioid use or the increase in pain came first. Both
increased rapidly after the mid-1990s. Pain prevalence might have been even higher without the drugs, although long-term opioid use may exacerbate pain for some (26), and consensus on the effectiveness and risks of long-term opioid use has been hampered by lack of research evidence (27). Pain is also a risk
factor for suicide (28). Increased alcohol abuse and suicides are likely symptoms of the same underlying epidemic (18, 19, 29), and have increased alongside it, both temporally and spatially.

Although the epidemic of pain, suicide, and drug overdoses preceded the financial crisis, ties to economic insecurity are possible. After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents. Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this
group, especially those with only a high school education. However, the productivity slowdown is common to many rich countries, some of which have seen even slower growth in median earnings than the United States, yet none have had the same mortality experience (lanekenworthy.net/shared-prosperity and ref. 30). The United States has moved primarily to defined-contribution pension plans with associated stock market risk, whereas, in Europe, defined-benefit pensions are still the norm. Future financial insecurity may weigh more heavily on US workers, if they perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans (31).

As an aside, the data pain and other indicators of diminished functioning (difficulties in standing, walking, climbing stairs; resulting limited social activities) suggest that the rise in Social Security disability claims are not entirely, and may not even be significantly, abuses of the system, but reflect a heretofore unrecognized deterioration in the health of a significant number of Americans.

I wonder if readers can help fill in the gap in these news stories, in terms of the lack of a picture of the people in this group. One of my sister-in-law fits the profile. She has only a high school degree, is now in her early 50s, and lives in a town of about 12,000, population down from a peak of 15,000, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where the biggest local employer is a paper mill where my brother works. She was in good health when she was young, but had a bad reaction to medications she took after having a minor procedure. She became severely allergic as a result and I am convinced this is not hypochondria (as in I’ve seen her eat things that it turns out were problematic and watched her turn green). She can eat only a very limited diet and often has back pain (although she sees chiropractors rather than taking meds). She’s in the emergency room several times a year and seems to have little social life outside her family (she does have family members in the area). Even though she is upbeat much of the time, there is no way she could work; she seems to be incapacitated at least a day a month. I think her condition would be far more desperate if my brother did not have a decent medical plan, but since it is being crapified and she is not getting any healthier, it’s not clear if she will continue to get the same level of medical attention as she has till now. Plus the mill, which was formerly world class, has been badly mismanaged by private equity firms, starting with Cerberus, who installed no-nothing highly paid CEOs and stinted on maintenance, a cardinal sin in a capital-intensive environment. My brother worries they will break the union in two years, which will make working conditions intolerable (they are already much worse than they used to be) but I don’t see how he can begin to afford his wife’s medical care on Obamacare, particularly on an income lower than he has now.

Any other observations about this telling state of affairs very much appreciated. This is a shameful testament as to what America is becoming, and it is very unlikely that the right people will be ashamed.

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Case-Deaton-on-White-Mortality-and-Morbidity.pdf