Astronomers detect gravitational waves predicted by Einstein

By Will Morrow
12 February 2016

Astronomers from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Collaboration have published the first detection of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space and time. The announcement comes almost exactly a century after Albert Einstein, in mid-1916, predicted the existence of the waves on the basis of his Theory of General Relativity.

The findings were announced at a press conference at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. on Thursday morning. They open up a new era in humanity’s efforts to investigate the universal laws of the motion of matter. Until now, there has been no way to directly detect the subtle gravitational vibrations which pass continuously through Earth as they do throughout the Universe. Now, however, a new spectrum of gravitational wave astronomy has begun, allowing scientists to examine regions of the cosmos previously excluded from study.

The detected wave was generated by the merger of two black holes more than one billion light years from Earth. Today’s announcement, therefore, contains two separate discoveries: the detection of gravitational waves and the first-ever observation of a black-hole binary merger, an event which had been theoretically predicted, but never seen. Black holes are so gravitationally strong that even light cannot escape their pull, which has prevented us from directly observing them until now.

The three stages of the collision of two black holes – inspiral, merger and ringdown – illustrated above. The signal detected by the two LIGO instruments is superimposed across the bottom. Credit: LIGO, NSF, Aurore Simonnet (Sonoma State U.)

The paper published today in the journal Physical Review Letters is titled, “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger.” It is jointly authored by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and another gravitational wave detector team, the VIRGO Collaboration. A second paper has also been published outlining the astrophysical implications of the discovery. In total, twelve publications have resulted from this discovery with many more to come.

According to the first paper, the wave passed through Earth on September 14, 2015, at 09:50:45 UTC. This was just two days into the first three-month run by the LIGO detectors after they had received a major upgrade over the previous five years. The two detectors are located in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington, both in the United States. The wave was observed at both detectors, with a seven millisecond delay between the two.

The most intense part of the wave passed in a fleeting quarter of a second. In this time, the wave frequency increased from 35 to 150 Hz, as the relative velocity of the black holes sped up to half the speed of light. Just before merging, they were orbiting each other seventy five times per second and separated by just 350 kilometres. Nothing other than black holes would be compact enough to reach such speeds at this proximity.

The two black holes weighed approximately 29 and 36 times the mass of our Sun before the merger. But the final black hole weighs just 62 solar masses—three less than the sum of its constituents. The missing three solar masses were radiated away as energy in gravitational waves, distorting and bending the surrounding spacetime.

Put another way, in the last moments of the collision, the power radiated away by gravitational waves peaked at more than fifty times greater than the combined visible radiation of every star and gas cloud in the Universe. It is the most energetic event ever detected.

A computer simulation of the collision of two black holes. Time has been slowed down one hundred times to more clearly observe the inspiral, merger and ringdown. Credit: SXS Project

When speaking about gravitational waves, the obvious question is: what is “waving?”

The existence of these waves flowed from the new equations of gravity which Einstein developed in 1915. The classical theory of gravity, which had been established by Isaac Newton, described it as a force acting instantaneously at a distance between any two objects with mass. Moreover, gravitational interactions were seen to take place against a completely fixed backdrop of space and time, itself completely independent from the motion of matter.

With Einstein’s theory, space and time were seen as a unified, dynamic entity. Gravity is the result of the warping of spacetime by the local presence of mass and energy. Moreover, while mass/energy warps spacetime, the curvature of spacetime itself tells matter how to move. (A more comprehensive review of the development and theory of General Relativity can be read here.)

A classic analogy is to consider the four-dimensional spacetime as a two-dimensional flat elastic sheet. Placing a mass on the sheet causes it to bend, and alters the motion of other nearby bodies. Gravitational waves can also be understood with this analogy. Wiggling a very heavy mass very quickly on the sheet will generate ripples, as the membrane seeks to overcome the local build-up of stress by releasing tension outwards. In the case of gravitational waves, what is “wiggling” is the lengths of spacetime.

Albert Einstein in 1921

Before yesterday’s announcement, there had already been strong indirect evidence for gravity waves. Two orbiting neutron stars, discovered in 1974 by Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, were seen to slowly approach one another at the rate predicted by their expected gravitational wave emission.

Direct detection of gravitational waves is far more challenging. Gravity is by far the weakest force, and only enormous masses changing their orientation rapidly can make appreciable waves in spacetime. Why gravity is much weaker than the other fundamental forces in nature remains a central question in physics.

To detect these waves, LIGO uses two lasers shooting down two four-kilometre tracks that are at right angles to each other. As a gravitational wave passes across the tracks, one track lengthens and one track contracts. This is revealed in the interference of the two lasers when they meet at the base of the tracks. But the change is exceedingly small: the detected gravitational wave made each four-kilometre track change in length by less than one thousandth of the width of a proton.

This means the apparatus effectively had to measure the distance between Earth and the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, to the accuracy of the width of a human hair. The experiment is the most precise humans have ever conducted.

The gravitational waves of the inspiraling black holes converted to sound. The lower pitched ‘chirps’ exactly match the frequencies of the gravitational waves. The higher pitched chirps have been generated to better fit human hearing. Credit: LIGO Collaboration

To reach the sensitivity required, the scientists had to develop novel means of suppressing “noise” caused by vibrations of the mirrors from other sources. The detector is sensitive to the crashing of waves on the shore hundreds of kilometres away, wind outside the facility, and thermal vibrations due to heating of the mirrors by the laser itself. As well as using a complicated system of pulleys and magnetic vibrational suppressors, and placing the detectors in a vacuum, the LIGO team also requires that any signal on one detector is seen on the other, to rule out the possibility of a local event being falsely reported as a gravitational wave originating in deep space.

The success of this experiment is the product of more than two decades of scientific collaboration involving researchers from all over the world. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration includes more than 1,000 scientists, including contributors from Japan, Germany, India, Italy, Russia, China and Australia, as well as the United States.

The recently upgraded “Advanced” LIGO detector is the most sophisticated of a new generation of gravity interferometers. The original LIGO was first proposed in 1989 and gained funding in 1992, with the aim of demonstrating the feasibility of the experiment. New upgrades, based on technologies that would be developed later, were planned from the outset.

Over the same period, increased computational power and techniques have opened up the field of numerical relativity, which was not previously possible due to the enormous computational complexity of Einstein’s equations. These simulations allowed the LIGO team to compare their detection with the theoretically predicted signal from a black hole binary merger.

The binary black hole merger that created GW150914 happened in Earth’s southern hemisphere approximately 1.3 billion light years away. The colored lines are regions where the signal likely originated. The exact location cannot be determined with the data of only two detectors. A third will enter service later this year. Credit: LIGO Collaboration

Other detectors already exist, and are being upgraded or built. These include the VIRGO detector in Italy and the KAGRA detector in Japan. There are also plans for another LIGO detector in India. Earlier this year, the LISA Pathfinder mission was launched into space, with the aim of testing the technologies for a space-based gravitational wave detector. Having an array of detectors will allow astronomers to triangulate the wave signal and pinpoint the source location, meaning astronomers using conventional electromagnetic telescopes can be notified of where to point their detectors.

The opening up of gravitational wave astronomy has vast implications. It will provide for tests of the validity of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity in the domain of very strong fields and high speeds, such as around black holes. It also allows us to look into the interior of neutron stars, whose incredible densities offer a physical laboratory that could not be replicated on Earth. Moreover, while dust and other matter obscure our observation of the distant universe using light, gravitational waves—because they interact so weakly with matter—reach us relatively unimpeded.

But as well as providing some answers, the introduction of an entirely new, gravitational spectrum will undoubtedly raise new, and entirely unexpected, questions. As Kip Thorne, a LIGO co-founder and a world expert in relativity theory, commented to Physics World: “LIGO has opened a new window on the universe—a gravitational-wave window. Each time a new window has opened up there have been big surprises—LIGO is just the beginning. Until now, we as scientists have only seen warped space-time, when it’s very calm. It’s as though we’d only seen the surface of the ocean on a very calm day when it’s quite glassy. We had never seen the ocean in a storm, with crashing waves. All of that changed on 14 September 2015. The colliding black holes that produced these gravitational waves created a violent storm in the fabric of space and time. A storm in which time speeded up and slowed down, speeded up again.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/12/ligo-f12.html

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace dramatized in a new television series

By Joanne Laurier
11 February 2016

Leo Tolstoy’s titanic novel War and Peace has received a new adaptation by the BBC and is now airing globally. Directed by British filmmaker Tom Harper, the serialized television production stars American actor Paul Dano and British actors Lily James, James Norton, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea in leading roles as part of a large, predominantly UK cast.

Tolstoy, one of the greatest of the great Russian fiction writers of the 19th century, was born in 1828, three years after the Decembrist Revolt in which a group of officers rose up in one of the first open struggles against tsarism. He died November 20, 1910, five years after the 1905 Revolution in Russia and seven years before the October Revolution. Tolstoy’s other great works includeAnna Karenina (1877) and Resurrection (1899).

His epic War and Peace, first published in its entirety in 1869, is set during the period of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) and the French invasion of Russia. It follows the members of several Russian aristocratic families as they seek to survive the confusing, frenzied, bloody times.

The eight-hour miniseries opens in 1805 in St. Petersburg, as Napoleon’s victories and his army’s conquest of significant portions of western Europe are having an increasing impact on Russian life. Many of the central characters are introduced at an upper crust social gathering. Among them is Pierre Bezukhov (Dano), awkward but amiable, and initially a supporter of the French leader: “Napoleon’s a great man! He stood above the revolution, he put an end to its abuses and kept all that was good about it! You see good in revolution, sir? The equality of all citizens, freedom of speech, liberty, equality, fraternity, these are ideas we could learn from in Russia.”

Pierre looks on with disgust at the room’s “overfed aristocrats.” The illegitimate son of a wealthy count, he will soon become the object of intrigue for the sinister Prince Vassily Kuragin (Rea), who makes an unsuccessful attempt to suppress the will that names Pierre the inheritor of his father’s vast estate.

Paul Dano and James Norton in War and Peace

Another guest at the party is Pierre’s friend Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton), the intelligent and ambitious son of retired military commander Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky (Broadbent). Also present are the Rostovs, a noble, but down-on-their-luck Moscow family that includes a vivacious daughter Natasha (James), a quiet niece Sonya (Aisling Loftus) and a son Nikolai (Jack Lowden), who has just joined the army commanded by the veteran General Kutuzov (Brian Cox) (“He’s about the only man in Russia who knows what the war’s about and that includes our glorious Emperor.”). Nikolai’s parents (Greta Scacchi and Adrian Edmondson) are depending on their son to reverse the family fortunes.

Russia is in alliance with the Austrian Empire at this point (in the Third Coalition against Napoleon) and a restless, unhappy Andrei (“I can’t bear this life”)––whose young wife is pregnant––and Nikolai set off for the front. Meanwhile, Kuragin maneuvers Pierre into marrying his morally loose but beautiful daughter Helene (Tuppence Middleton). Her incestuous relationship with her dissolute brother Anatole (Callum Turner) is one indication of her manipulative, deceitful character.

Thus the stage is set for the various personal and political stratagems, unions and disunions, as the epoch of war heads toward its denouement following Napoleon’s fateful invasion of Russia in 1812 and the declaration of war by a reluctant Tsar Alexander I (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). On the eve of the invasion, Napoleon (Mathieu Kassovitz) brags that he has 600,000 men while the Russian army has only one-third that number and lies in shambles.

The mini-series

War and Peace has been adapted by Andrew Davies, best known for his reworking for television of such classics as Pride and Prejudice (1995), Vanity Fair (1998) and Sense and Sensibility (2008). He also wrote the popular British political thriller serial House of Cards (1990). His work on the current production results in a credible condensation of Tolstoy’s massive, complex story, some 1,400 pages and more than half a million words long.

Visually graceful and aided by numerous accomplished performances, this large-scale, high-quality production is, on the whole, a gripping experience.

Lily James as Natasha Rostova

The series paints a picture of a Russian aristocracy in which petty and selfish motives predominate. Andrei Bolkonsky goes off to war primarily to escape a vapid, stuffy life. Nikolai Rostov has other motives: his gambling debts have nearly bankrupted his family. He considers it more honorable to turn soldier than remain in the clutches of a nasty, egotistical mother and kindly, but ineffectual, father. In the end, under pressure from his parents, Nikolai breaks his engagement to the impecunious Sonya in favor of a more advantageous liaison.

Andrei Bolkonsky’s sister, the modest Marya (Jessie Buckley), shows her spiteful landlord coloring when she deals with the serfs on the family estate who refuse to help the household escape from the invading French army. Bellows one angry peasant: “The French will set us free and give us land! What have you ever done for us?”

Unfortunately, the production seems to side with Marya and her self-centered concerns. She is soon rescued from the legitimate wrath of the peasants by the timely appearance of Nikolai and his regiment. It is the one major scene that points to the fact that this parasitical social layer lives off the exploitation and enslavement of the peasantry.

Pierre, the moral conscience of War and Peace, tries to be honest when he sadly admits that “my life is one mistake after another … I wanted to change the world for the better, help my fellow men and look at me a fat, drunken aristocrat who makes a bungle out of everything.” To make amends for what he considers his mistakes, Pierre becomes obsessed with assassinating Napoleon.

In a relatively modest way, the mini-series does provide some sense of the great events that shaped the Tolstoy novel—namely, the aftermath of the world-altering French revolution. The depiction of the Battle of Borodino in September 1812, the bloodiest single day of the Napoleonic wars, with some 70,000 Russian and French casualties, is one of the series’ strongest sequences. Here, at least for a moment, the aristocratic lifestyle is left behind and we see something of the horror of war: men cut in half, doctors sawing off legs, the misery of the wounded and dying. And later there are the horrific consequences for Moscow’s population.

Pierre Bezukhov (Dano) as French prisoner

A duality exists in Tolstoy’s work between sharp condemnations of the aristocratic life and his acceptance of the inevitability of that life. In his remarkable 1908 tribute to the novelist, Leon Trotsky observed that, despite everything, Tolstoy continued to place in the center of his artistic attention “the one and the same wealthy and well-born Russian landlord” as though outside this universe “there were nothing of importance or of beauty.”

The mini-series tends to adopt the same standpoint, which is far less defensible given the subsequent course of Russian and world history. Trotsky noted that at the end of the novel, Tolstoy showed Pierre Bezukhov, “the restless seeker of truth,” as “a smug family man,” and “Natasha Rostova, so touching in her semi-childlike sensitivity,” as “a shallow breeding female, untidy diapers in hand.” The present series does the same, only more so. The final scene grates with its complacency and suggestion that contented family life offers some consolation for the massive destruction and loss of life.

That being said, Davies is genuinely skilled at choosing and adapting enduring, classic works. True, his genre of intelligent costume drama is not the be-all and end-all of artistic effort. One might even say that stylish adaptations like War and Peace have a certain soothing effect on an audience (with the exception of the battle scenes). If we were currently flooded with challenging artistic evauations of the status quo, it is unlikely that such series would receive quite the attention they do. However, given the actual state of cultural affairs, this version of the Tolstoy epic attracts attention for its general intelligence and pleasing aesthetic qualities.

Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton) with his unit

To their credit, the makers of the miniseries have tried to capture certain crucial features of the novel. A naturalness and elegance underscore and heighten the emotional intensity. As in Tolstoy’s narrative, there is truthfulness, a lack of pretension and artificiality: the viewer is engaging with real people, who have real, complex lives and feelings.

In dozens of essays the leading Russian Marxists, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky and others, pointed to the great contrast between the immortality of Tolstoy’s artistic achievement and the poverty of his philosophical and social ideas. The novelist was a pacifist, a believer in “non-resistance to evil,” a conservative anarchist, “a moralist and mystic,” in Trotsky’s phrase, and “a foe of politics and revolution.”

Nonetheless, as an indefatigable social critic, an enemy of cruelty and oppression, Tolstoy played an enormous role in undermining the tsarist regime and the entire Russian social order. Reactionary forces in the former Soviet Union have not forgiven him to this day.

In an obituary, Trotsky magnificently paid tribute to the great writer: “Truth in and of itself possesses a terrible, explosive power: once proclaimed, it irresistibly gives rise to revolutionary con­clusions in the consciousness of the masses. Everything that Tolstoy stated publicly… seeped into the minds of the laboring masses … And the word became deed. Although not a revolutionary, Tolstoy nurtured the revolutionary element with his words of genius. In the book about the great storm of 1905 an honorable chapter will be ded­icated to Tolstoy.”

It would be misleading to suggest that Tolstoy’s fierce indictment of Russia’s institutions is sufficiently present in the War and Peace mini-series. However, its honest presentation inevitably communicates elements of the social critique, and also may lead the viewer to investigate Tolstoy’s work further. That would be all to the good.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/11/wrpe-f11.html

Detroit and Chicago teachers fight to defend public education

save-philly-schools

8 February 2016

The past month has seen the entry of thousands of teachers into open struggle against the attack on public education by the Obama administration and both the Democratic and Republican parties. After decades of relentless budget cutting, teacher layoffs and school closings—accelerated in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash—teachers in Detroit and Chicago have begun a battle that is of immense importance for the entire working class.

In fighting to defend the fundamental democratic right to a decent education, teachers have been thrust into a conflict with every section of the political establishment, from the two big business parties and the capitalist courts to the corporate-controlled media and the teachers’ unions that falsely claim to defend their interests.

Last month, thousands of Detroit teachers conducted a series of “sick-out” protests that culminated in the shutdown of virtually the entire school system on January 20, the day of President Obama’s visit to the city. The actions were initiated by rank-and-file teachers using social media and carried out independently of and in defiance of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Teachers in the city named by Obama’s former education secretary as “ground zero” for the administration’s education policies demanded adequate resources and personnel to repair unheated and unsanitary school buildings, reduce class sizes, and provide social services to address alarming rates of poverty among their students. They also demanded a return of wages and benefits ceded by the DFT.

The efforts of the media and the state-appointed emergency manager of the school system to slander the teachers as greedy and indifferent to the needs of their students backfired. Parents vocally supported the sickouts and hundreds of students walked out of their high schools to oppose a witch-hunt against their teachers for “illegal strikes.”

In Chicago, the third largest school district in the US, tens of thousands of teachers and other school employees are battling the demands of Mayor Rahm Emanuel—a former investment banker who served as Obama’s White House chief of staff—to starve the public schools, slash wages and benefits, and funnel even more money to big bondholders and for-profit education firms.

More than three years after the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) betrayed the 2012 strike, leading to the closure of 50 schools and the layoff of more than 1,000 teachers, rank-and-file teachers rebelled against the union and its so-called left leaders, who sought to push through an agreement on behalf of Emanuel to shift pension and health care costs onto the backs of teachers and give school authorities a free hand to expand privately run charter schools.

Last Monday, the CTU’s bargaining committee unanimously rejected the deal after rank-and-file teachers began circulating on social media the details of the sellout, which the CTU had hoped to keep secret.

The day after the bargaining committee vote, the school authorities, complaining that they had a deal with the CTU, announced plans to cut $100 million from the school budget and lay off another 1,000 teachers. Defying this blackmail threat, 2,000 teachers marched in downtown Chicago Thursday evening, drawing expressions of solidarity from thousands of office workers, public employees, young people and other city residents.

The eruption of social opposition among teachers and students is a part of a broader radicalization of the working class, signaling a return of mass class struggles in the US. Last fall, in an incipient rebellion against the United Auto Workers union, autoworkers rejected a national auto contract for the first time in 33 years. The union was able to push through sellout deals with General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler only by resorting to lies, threats and outright fraud.

In Flint, the birthplace of General Motors and the site of the 1936-37 sit-down strike that established the UAW, working class residents have mobilized to protest the poisoning of the city’s water supply by state and local officials, assisted by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.

These stirrings of the American working class are part of the resurgence of class struggle internationally. From Greece and Brazil to China and South Africa, the working class is coming into conflict with capitalist governments, from the pseudo-left Syriza regime in Greece to the Tory government in Britain, which have imposed savage austerity on workers while transferring vast amounts of wealth to the world’s billionaires since the financial breakdown in 2008.

The fight of the teachers directly and urgently poses basic political questions. The AFT and its local affiliates in both Detroit and Chicago, which have long collaborated with the enemies of public education, are trying to smother the movement by promoting the Democratic Party and depicting the attack on education as a purely Republican matter.

This is a fraud. The Obama administration has gone well beyond the reactionary policies of its Republican predecessor in using test-based “accountability” schemes to scapegoat teachers, close so-called failing schools, and undermine the public schools in order to make education a new source of profit for the corporations and banks. Under Obama, more than 300,000 teachers and other school employees have lost their jobs and the number of students enrolled in charter schools has grown at a faster rate, almost doubling, since George Bush left office.

The Obama White House has cut Title 1 funds earmarked for impoverished districts like Detroit and Chicago by 11 percent, while special education funding has been cut by 9 percent. The bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by Obama late last year to replace Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, authorizes a “Pay for Success” scheme that allows wealthy investors in the for-profit education business to bid for services previously under the control of public schools, including special education, and lowers standards for the education of teachers in high-poverty districts.

The teachers’ unions do not oppose the attacks on teachers and public education. They merely seek a seat at the table so they can secure new sources of dues money from low-paid charter schoolteachers. The unions, including the CTU, whose vice president is a member of the pseudo-left International Socialist Organization, defend the capitalist system and insist that teachers and students must pay for the consequences of its crisis.

The democratic and egalitarian principles embodied in public education are incompatible with a society that is divided by such colossal levels of social inequality that 28 billionaires control as much wealth as the bottom half of the population—152 million people. The American ruling class long ago repudiated the principle that all children, regardless of socioeconomic background, have the right to a quality education.

The corporate and financial elite has nothing to offer working class youth except poverty-level jobs and war. Like the slave owners of an earlier period, today’s financial oligarchs want to keep those they exploit in ignorance. They fear the spread of knowledge and culture among a generation that is increasingly dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and determined to have a future free of oppression and war.

While the Chicago teachers were gearing up for mass protests last week, top officers in the Army and Marine Corps were telling a Congressional hearing that it is time for young women to register for a future military draft. On the one hand, schools are being starved of resources and working class students relegated to dilapidated and filthy buildings with over-packed classrooms. On the other hand, the White House is touting plans for a new generation of nuclear missile submarines costing $100 million each.

The struggle to defend the right to a quality public education is a political struggle against both big business parties and the capitalist system they defend. In this fight, teachers and students must turn to their real allies—the broad mass of working people. The immense social power of the working class must be mobilized to break the grip of the corporate-financial elite over society and reorganize the economy on the basis of public ownership and democratic control of the corporations and banks. Only on this socialist foundation can the basic social rights of working people, including the right to education, be secured.

Jerry White

 

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/08/pers-f08.html

Obama’s final State of the Union: Lies, evasions and threats

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By Patrick Martin
13 January 2016

The final State of the Union speech delivered Tuesday night by President Barack Obama was a demonstration of the incapacity of the American political system to deal honestly or seriously with a single social question.

Obama evaded the real issues that affect tens of millions of working people in America every day of their lives. He painted a ludicrous picture of economic recovery and social progress that insulted the intelligence of his television audience—and went unchallenged by the millionaire politicians assembled in the chamber of the House of Representatives.

Summing up what he called “the progress of these past seven years,” Obama gave first place to “how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations.” The so-called “recovery” has been a bonanza for corporate profits, stock prices, and the wealth and income of the super-rich. For the working people who are the vast majority of the population, it has been a disaster.

By most social indices, the American people are worse off in January 2016 than when Obama took office seven years ago. The real wages of working people have fallen, social services have deteriorated, pension benefits have been gutted, and cities such as Detroit and San Bernardino have been forced into bankruptcy.

According to a report by the National Association of Counties issued on the eve of the State of the Union address, of the 3,069 counties in the United States, 93 percent are worse off than before the 2008 financial crash according to at least one of four economic indicators: total employment, the unemployment rate, the size of the economy and home values.

In 27 states, not a single county has recovered fully from the 2008 crash and the deep economic slump that followed. These include such major states as Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Obama, however, painted a picture of nearly unblemished economic advance, declaring, “The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world.” He boasted, “We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the ‘90s; an unemployment rate cut in half.”

The president did not acknowledge that the post-2008 “recovery” is the weakest on record, that the vast majority of the new jobs created have been low-wage and many of them part-time, or that the drop in the unemployment rate is primarily due to the withdrawal of millions of people from the work force because they lost all hope of getting a decent-paying job.

He went on, tellingly, to cite the auto industry as a symbol of success, declaring that it “just had its best year ever.” This perfectly expresses the utter blindness, not just of Obama, but of the entire political establishment. The “best year ever” was for General Motors, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler, which enjoyed record profits, not for the auto workers who produced those profits.

Real wages for auto workers have dropped sharply since the Obama White House forced through a 50 percent cut in wages for all new hires as part of the bankruptcy reorganization of the industry in 2009. Mass discontent among auto workers was expressed at the end of 2015 in the rejection of contracts at Fiat-Chrysler and Nexteer, a major supplier, and in widespread demands for strike action, smothered by Obama’s stooges in the United Auto Workers union.

“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” Obama concluded. The social position of the American working class has, in fact, suffered a dramatic decline, through the combined efforts of the corporate bosses, the unions and the two capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans.

The president conceded that economic inequality has grown in the United States, but he described it as the outcome of long-term trends such as globalization and automation, as though the policies of his administration—bailouts for Wall Street, budget cuts and wage cuts for workers—had nothing to do with it.

In the seven years since the financial crash, brought on, as he admitted, by “recklessness on Wall Street,” not a single banker or speculator has been prosecuted or jailed. On the contrary, the billionaires have greatly increased their wealth, gobbling up 95 percent of all new income since Obama entered the White House.

Obama listed a few other policy “successes,” claiming that “we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector… we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans.” He was referring, however, to a series of social disasters: the reactionary attack on health benefits for workers and their families known as Obamacare; the devastation of Appalachia and other energy-producing regions; and the abuse of ex-soldiers, wounded in body and mind, by the Veterans Administration.

Obama sought to defend the foreign policy record of his administration from criticism, mainly from the Republican right, where demands are being raised for military escalation in the Middle East and stepped-up attacks on democratic rights at home in the name of fighting “terrorism.”

While he claimed to reject an American role as the world’s policeman, he nonetheless boasted, “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.”

He continued, “Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” winning the bipartisan standing ovation that always accompanies any mention of American soldiers engaged in combat overseas.

Obama indulged in the glorification of killing that has become an essential part of the degraded spectacle that passes for political discourse in America. Describing the US war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he claimed, “With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we are taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons.”

He called on Congress to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS, but vowed to wage war with or without legislative approval. The leaders of ISIS, he proclaimed, “will learn the same lessons as terrorists before them. If you doubt America’s commitment—or mine—to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden. Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year…”

Then he declared, in language that will be noted by nations all over the world, that when it comes to waging war against potential adversaries, “our reach has no limit.”

Obama concluded his speech with an appeal to his Republican opponents to work with his administration and pull back from the extreme anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has characterized the contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

In a clear reference to Donald Trump, he argued that “we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This is not a matter of political correctness, but understanding what makes us strong.”

Obama was making an argument, not so much that racism and bigotry are intrinsically wrong, but that they make it more difficult for American imperialism to maintain its dominant world role. “When a politician insults Muslims,” he said, “it makes it harder to achieve our goals.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/01/13/sotu-j13.html

The US in 2016: No money for social programs, cash to burn for the military

By Andre Damon
12 January 2016

The US Navy’s “goals and objectives” outline for 2016, released last week, does not mince words: the first goal listed in the second subhead reads: “Buy more ships.”

The US government has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into into military programs like the F-35 fighter, while slashing assistance for the poor, homeless, and hungry.

And that is exactly what the world’s most powerful navy is doing. On Wednesday, the Defense Department announced it was moving forward with plans to replace its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, the most lethal killing machines in the history of mankind, with a completely new design beginning in 2021.

Each Ohio-class ballistic submarine is, by itself, the fifth most powerful military in the world. The Navy operates 14 of them. Each submarine carries 24 Trident II missiles, with each missile carrying eight warheads with a yield six times greater than the “little boy” bomb that killed over a hundred thousand people in the US bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945.

With an effective range of more than 7,456 miles, a single Ohio-class submarine in the waters outside of San Diego could obliterate 192 cities in western China, with a combined population of 400 million people, if the commander-in-chief were so inclined.

A comparison of the world’s aircraft and helicopter carriers

But the Ohio class is apparently in need of an upgrade, and the White House gave the Pentagon the go-ahead last Monday to send a “Request for Proposal” to the ship’s contractor, General Dynamics Electric Boat, approving funds for the building of a prototype. Each submarine, of which there will be 12, will cost an estimated $6-8 billion—not including research and development costs, the price of each submarine’s nearly 200 nuclear warheads, and associated operating costs—up from $2 billion for the Ohio class.

The day after the White House gave the go-ahead for replacing the Ohio-class submarines, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported Monday that up to a million people will lose food stamp benefits in 2016.

Twenty-three states are expected this year to lift a moratorium on one of the harshest austerity measures imposed by the Clinton administration’s 1996 “welfare reform” program, which caps the amount of time many people are eligible for food stamps at three months. The time limits were halted during the recession, but under the pretense that there is “no money,” to pay for food stamps, states all over the country are re-imposing the time limits.

“The loss of this food assistance, which averages approximately $150 to $170 per person per month for this group, will cause serious hardship among many,” reported the organization. The CBPP notes, “USDA data show that the individuals likely to be cut off by the three-month limit have average monthly income of approximately 17 percent of the poverty line, and they typically qualify for no other income support.”

In announcing the food stamp cuts, Bill Clinton pledged to “spend the taxpayers’ money wisely and with discipline, that we can spend more money on the future.” If he had been telling the truth, he would have declared that he was proposing the cuts so that the Navy could “Buy more ships.”

After all, the money has to come from somewhere. And it’s easiest to take from those who are the least capable of defending themselves. In addition to the poor people who depend on food stamps to survive, working class children have been targeted.

The same day that the White House gave the go-ahead for the design of the new submarines, the CBPP released a report showing that funding for schools has been slashed in most states since 2008, and in 15 states by more than 10 percent. Arizona has cut education spending by 23.3 percent, Alabama by 21.4 percent, Idaho by 16.9 percent, and Georgia by 16.5 percent.

States have slashed education spending since 2008

While there is, of course, no money for children and the poor, defense contractors are licking their chops over the expected uptick in global military spending resulting from the wars flaring out of control in the Middle East and the growing standoff in Eastern Europe and the Pacific.

Defense industry analyst Deloitte gleefully declared earlier this month that military spending is “poised for a rebound” as a result of “heightened tensions” around the world.

It notes, “2015 was a pivotal year that saw heightened tensions between China, its neighbors and the US over ‘island building’ in the South and East China Seas, and the related claims of sovereign ocean territory rights by China. In addition, Russia and the Ukraine are at odds related to Russia’s takeover of Crimea and their military actions in Eastern Ukraine,” while “The recent tragic bombings in Paris, Beirut, Mali, the Sinai Peninsula, and other places have emboldened nations to join in the fight against terrorism.”

The US spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined

The report notes that “improved profitability” will result from “renewed interest from buyers” in acquiring “armored ground vehicles, ground attack munitions, light air support aircraft” and “maritime patrol ships and aircraft,” as “the military operations tempo is likely to increase and more missions are executed.”

The global uptick in military spending coincides with a major new shopping spree by the United States, which spends as much money on its military as the next seven countries—China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, India and Germany—combined. The US expends $609.9 billion out of the $1.7 trillion spent worldwide by all countries each year on war.

But this figure is slated to surge as “Many large, mainly US [Department of Defense] programs representing billions of US dollars, are likely to start soon, enter the engineering manufacturing design phase, and reach low-rate or full-scale production over the next few years. These programs include Ohio Class Submarine replacement, F-35 fighter jet, KC-46A aerial refueling tanker, and Long Range Strike Bomber.”

Just one of these programs, the F-35 “Lightning II,” plagued with delays and cost-overruns, will cost $1.45 trillion over its lifecycle, more than twice the amount that state, federal, and local governments spend educating 50 million children each year.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/01/12/spen-j12.html

Charter schools are no cure-all

To the 1 percent pouring millions into charter schools: How about improving the schools that the vast majority of students actually attend?

If we really want to improve education for all, we must address income inequality.

To the 1 percent pouring millions into charter schools: How about improving the schools that the vast majority of students actually attend?

(Credit: AP/John Minchillo)

Obscured by the rancor of the school reform debate is this fact: Socio-economic status is the most relevant determinant of student success in school.

It is not a coincidence that the so-called decline of the American public school system has coincided with the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.  According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, the wealth disparity between upper-income and middle-income families is at a record high. Upper-income families are nearly seven times wealthier than middle-income ones, compared to 3.4 times richer in 1983. Upper-income family wealth is nearly 70 times that of the country’s lower-income families, also the widest wealth gap between these families in 30 years.

As the income disparity has increased, so has the educational achievement gap. According to Sean F. Reardon, professor of education and sociology at Stanford University, the gap for children from high- and low-income families is at an all-time high—roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier. With 22 percent of children in the U.S. living in poverty, this country’s 27th-place PISA ranking—the worldwide study that measures K-12 academic performance—simply cannot be compared to a country like Finland, which ranks 12th and, at 5.3 percent, has the second-lowest child poverty rate in the world.

So, why are wealthy school reform funders so squarely focused on identifying teachers and their unions as the cause of public education’s decline and advancing charter schools as the best solution?

Charter schools will never be the answer to improving education for all. It is simply not scaleable. And yet titans of industry such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family, and billionaires such as John Paulson who earlier this year gave $8.5 million to New York’s Success Academy charter school system, are pouring their millions into support for charter schools—millions that will not, incidentally, be invested in improving the schools that the vast majority of U.S. students attend: traditional public schools.

Can it be a coincidence that those who have benefited most from the last 50 years of steadily increasing income inequality—the top 10 percent–support an education solution that hinges on denigrating public school teachers, dismantling unions and denying that income inequality is the underlying condition at the root of the problem?

The most generous explanation for this phenomenon says that the wealthiest among us are motivated to support charter schools purely out of ideology. They are operating under deeply held beliefs that a school system run by the government smothers innovation and that teachers unions inhibit a free market system that, if allowed to operate, would result in better teachers and child outcomes. In addition, these philanthropists believe that public education has become so hidebound that meaningful change within the system is no longer possible, and that fresh ideas and programs not beholden to a system that resists change will provide programs and ideas that are more effective.

Another explanation that has been posited is that good, old-fashioned greed is at the root. After all, the wealthy did not achieve their wealth through an indifference to achieving a return on their investments—and our public school system is a $621 billion per year endeavor. For example, a recent investigation by the Arizona Republic found that the state’s charter schools purchased a variety of goods and services from the companies of its own board members or administrators. In fact, the paper found at least 17 such contracts or arrangements totaling more than $70 million over five years.

In addition, there are specific tax loopholes that make it especially attractive to donate to charter schools. Banks and equity and hedge funds that invest in charter schools in underserved areas can take advantage of a tax credit. They are permitted to combine this tax credit with other tax breaks while they also collect interest on any money they lend out. According to analysts, the credit allows them to double the money they invested in seven years.

Another explanation suggests a darker motivation. The wealthy’s focus on charter schools is a strategy to weaken unions, one of the few reliable Democratic voting blocs that remain. It is also a convenient way to deflect from the fact that they have benefited most from income inequality and that their business practices—such as moving manufacturing jobs overseas and reducing their tax burden by taking advantage of offshore tax havens—have been among the causes of income inequality and the accompanying erosion of the middle class.

So, if you are a philanthropist from the tech or finance sectors and your goal is truly to fix education in this country, you would do well to apply your generosity, innovative spirit and funds toward addressing the problem of income inequality. Your wealth and position as prominent business leaders put you in a particularly influential position to help close the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Rebuilding the middle class—not expanding charter schools—is the most effective path to increasing access to quality education and to giving more students the opportunity to achieve their dreams.

Gary M. Sasso, Ph.D., is the dean of the College of Education at Lehigh University. 

How the Internet changed the way we read

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The Daily Dot

As a professor of literature, rhetoric, and writing at the University of California at Irvine, I’ve discovered that one of the biggest lies about American culture (propagated even by college students) is that Americans don’t read.

The truth is that most of us read continuously in a perpetual stream of incestuous words, but instead of reading novels, book reviews, or newspapers like we used to in the ancien régime, we now read text messages, social media, and bite-sized entries about our protean cultural history on Wikipedia.

In the great epistemic galaxy of words, we have become both reading junkies and also professional text skimmers. Reading has become a clumsy science, which is why we keep fudging the lab results. But in diagnosing our own textual attention deficit disorder (ADD), who can blame us for skimming? We’re inundated by so much opinion posing as information, much of it the same material with permutating and exponential commentary. Skimming is practically a defense mechanism against the avalanche of info-opinion that has collectively hijacked narrative, reportage, and good analysis.

We now skim everything it seems to find evidence for our own belief system. We read to comment on reality (Read: to prove our own belief system). Reading has become a relentless exercise in self-validation, which is why we get impatient when writers don’t come out and simply tell us what they’re arguing. Which reminds me:  What the hell am I arguing?  With the advent of microblogging platforms, Twitter activism, self-publishing companies, professional trolling, everyone has a microphone now and yet no one actually listens to each other any more. And this is literally because we’re too busy reading. And when we leave comments on an online article, it’s usually an argument we already agree with or one we completely reject before we’ve read the first paragraph. In the age of hyper-information, it’s practically impossible not to be blinded by our own confirmation bias. It’s hard not to be infatuated with Twitter shitstorms either, especially when we’re not the target practice.

E-novels, once the theater of the mind for experimental writers, are now mainstream things that look like long-winded websites. Their chapters bleed into the same cultural space on our screen as grocery lists, weather forecasts, calendar reminders, and email messages. What’s the real difference between reading a blog post online by an eloquent blowhard and reading one chapter of a Jonathan Franzen novel? We can literally swipe from one text to another on our Kindle without realizing we changed platforms. What’s the real difference between skimming an informed political critique on a political junkie Tumblr account and reading a focused tirade on the Washington Post’s blog written by putative experts?

What’s the real difference between skimming an informed political critique on a political junkie Tumblr account and reading a focused tirade on the Washington Post’s blog written by putative experts?

That same blog post will get reposted on other news sites and the same news article will get reposted on other blogs interchangeably.  Content—whether thought-provoking, regurgitated, or analytically superficial, impeccably-researched, politically doctrinaire, or grammatically atrocious—now occupies the same cultural space, the same screen space, and the same mental space in the public imagination.  After awhile, we just stop keeping track of what’s legitimately good because it takes too much energy to separate the crème from the foam.

As NPR digitizes itself in the 21st century, buries the “R” in its name, and translates its obsolete podcasts into online news features, every one of its articles now bleeds with its comment section, much of it written by posters who haven’t even read the article in question—essentially erasing the dividing lines between expert, echo chamber, and dilettante, journalist, hack, and self-promoter, reportage, character assassination, and mob frenzy.

One silver lining is that the technological democratization of social media has effectively deconstructed the one-sided power of the Big Bad Media in general and influential writing in particular, which in theory makes this era freer and more decentralized than ever. One downside to technological democratization is that it hasn’t lead to a thriving marketplace of ideas, but a greater retreat into the Platonic cave of self-identification with the shadow world. We have never needed a safer and quieter place to collect our thoughts from the collective din of couch quarterbacking than we do now, which is why it’s so easy to preemptively categorize the articles we read before we actually read them to save ourselves the heartache and the controversy.

The abundance of texts in this zeitgeist creates a tunnel effect of amnesia.  We now have access to so much information that we actually forget the specific nuances of what we read, where we read them, and who wrote them. We forget what’s available all the time because we live in an age of hyperabundant textuality. Now, when we’re lost, we’re just one click away from the answer. Even the line separating what we know and what we don’t know is blurry.

We now have access to so much information that we actually forget the specific nuances of what we read, where we read them, and who wrote them.

It is precisely because we now consume writing from the moment we wake until the moment we crash—most of it mundane, redundant, speculative, badly researched, partisan, and emojian—that we no longer have the same appetite (or time) for literary fiction, serious think pieces, or top-shelf journalism anymore, even though they’re all readily available. If an article on the Daily Dot shows up on page 3 of a Google search, it might as well not exist at all. The New York Timesarticle we half-read on our iPhone while standing up in the Los Angeles Metro ends up blurring with the 500 modified retweets about that same article on Twitter. Authors aren’t privileged anymore because everyone writes commentary somewhere and everyone’s commentary shows up some place. Only the platform and the means of production have changed.

Someday, the Centers for Disease Control will create a whole new branch of research dedicated to studying the infectious disease of cultural memes.  Our continuous consumption of text is intricately linked to our continuous forgetting, our continuous reinfection, and our continuous thumbs up/thumbs down approach to reality, which is why we keep reading late into the night, looking for the next place to leave a comment someone has already made somewhere. Whether we like it or not, we’re all victims and perpetrators of this commentary fractal. There seems to be no way out except deeper inside the sinkhole or to go cold turkey from the sound of our own voices.

Jackson Bliss is a hapa fiction writer and a lecturer in the English department at the University of California Irvine. He has a BA in comp lit from Oberlin College , a MFA in fiction from the University of Notre Dame, and a MA in English and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from USC. His short stories and essays have appeared in many publications.  

 

http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/how-internet-changed-way-we-read/

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