Apparently you can’t be empathetic, or help the homeless, without a GoPro

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless

people to capture “extreme living”

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless people to capture "extreme living"

GoPro cameras are branded as recording devices for extreme sports, but a San Francisco-based entrepreneur had a different idea of what to do with the camera: Strap it to a homeless man and capture “extreme living.”

The project is called Homeless GoPro, and it involves learning the first-person perspective of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. The website explains:

“With a donated HERO3+ Silver Edition from GoPro and a small team of committed volunteers in San Francisco, Homeless GoPro explores how a camera normally associated with extreme sports and other ’hardcore’ activities can showcase courage, challenge, and humanity of a different sort - extreme living.”

The intentions of the founder, Kevin Adler, seem altruistic. His uncle was homeless for 30 years, and after visiting his gravesite he decided to start the organization and help others who are homeless.

The first volunteer to film his life is a man named Adam, who has been homeless for 30 years, six of those in San Francisco. There are several edited videos of him on the organization’s site.

In one of the videos, titled “Needs,” Adam says, “I notice every day that people are losing their compassion and empathy — not just for homeless people — but for society in general. I feel like technology has changed so much — where people are emailing and don’t talk face to face anymore.”

Without knowing it Adam has critiqued the the entire project, which is attempting to use technology (a GoPro) to garner empathy and compassion. It is a sad reminder that humanity can ignore the homeless population in person on a day-to-day basis, and needs a video to build empathy. Viewers may feel a twinge of guilt as they sit removed from the situation, watching a screen.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Human Services‘ biennial count there were 6,436 homeless people living in San Francisco (county and city). “Of the 6,436 homeless counted,” a press release stated, “more than half (3,401) were on the streets without shelter, the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.” The homeless population is subject to hunger, illness, violence, extreme weather conditions, fear and other physical and emotional ailments.



Empathy — and the experience of “walking a mile in somebody’s shoes” — are important elements of social change, and these documentary-style videos do give Adam a medium and platform to be a voice for the homeless population. (One hopes that the organization also helped Adam in other ways — shelter, food, a place to stay on his birthday — and isn’t just using him as a human tool in its project.) But something about the project still seems off.

It is in part because of the product placement. GoPro donated a $300 camera for the cause, which sounds great until you remember that it is a billion-dollar company owned by billionaire Nick Woodman. If GoPro wants to do something to help the Bay Area homeless population there are better ways to go about it than donate a camera.

As ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle put it, “Stop thinking we can innovate our way out of one of civilization’s oldest ailments. Poverty, homelessness, and inequality are bigger than any app …”

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/17/today_in_bad_ideas_strapping_video_cameras_to_homeless_people_to_capture_extreme_living/?source=newsletter

Depriving homeless people of their last shelter in life is Silicon Valley at its worst.


The 1% Wants to Ban Sleeping in Cars

Because It Hurts Their ‘Quality of Life’

Photo Credit: meunierd/Shutterstock.com

Across the United States, many local governments are responding to skyrocketing levels of inequality and the now decades-long crisis of homelessness among the very poor … by passing laws making it a crime to sleep in a parked car.

This happened most recently in Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley, where new billionaires are seemingly minted every month – and where 92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind. Dozens of cities have passed similar anti-homeless laws. The largest of them is Los Angeles, the longtime unofficial “homeless capital of America”, where lawyers are currently defending a similar vehicle-sleeping law before a skeptical federal appellate court. Laws against sleeping on sidewalks or in cars are called “quality of life” laws. But they certainly don’t protect the quality of life of the poor.

To be sure, people living in cars cannot be the best neighbors. Some people are able to acquire old and ugly – but still functioning – recreational vehicles with bathrooms; others do the best they can. These same cities have resisted efforts to provide more public toilet facilities, often on the grounds that this will make their city a “magnet” for homeless people from other cities. As a result, anti-homeless ordinances often spread to adjacent cities, leaving entire regions without public facilities of any kind.

Their hope, of course, is that homeless people will go elsewhere, despite the fact that the great majority of homeless people are trying to survive in the same communities in which they were last housed – and where they still maintain connections. Americans sleeping in their own cars literally have nowhere to go.

Indeed, nearly all homelessness in the US begins with a loss of income and an eviction for nonpayment of rent – a rent set entirely by market forces. The waiting lists are years long for the tiny fraction of housing with government subsidies. And rents have risen dramatically in the past two years, in part because long-time tenants must now compete with the millions of former homeowners who lost their homes in the Great Recession.

The paths from eviction to homelessness follow familiar patterns. For the completely destitute without family or friends able to help, that path leads more or less directly to the streets. For those slightly better off, unemployment and the exhaustion of meager savings – along with the good graces of family and friends – eventually leaves people with only two alternatives: a shelter cot or their old automobile.

However, in places like Los Angeles, the shelters are pretty much always full. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of unsheltered homeless people increased by 67%. In Palo Alto last year, there were 12 shelter beds for 157 homeless individuals. Homeless people in these cities do have choices: they can choose to sleep in a doorway, on a sidewalk, in a park, under a bridge or overpass, or – if they are relatively lucky – in a car. But these cities have ordinances that make all of those choices a criminal offense. The car is the best of bad options, now common enough that local bureaucrats have devised a new, if oxymoronic, term – the “vehicularly housed”.

People sleeping in cars try to find legal, nighttime parking places, where they will be less apparent and arouse the least hostility. But cities like Palo Alto and Los Angeles often forbid parking between 2am and 5am in commercial areas, where police write expensive tickets and arrest and impound the vehicles of repeat offenders. That leaves residential areas, where overnight street parking cannot, as a practical matter, be prohibited.

One finds the “vehicularly housed” in virtually every neighborhood, including my own. But the animus that drives anti-homeless laws seems to be greatest in the wealthiest cities, like Palo Alto, which has probably spawned more per-capita fortunes than any city on Earth, and in the more recently gentrified areas like Los Angeles’ Venice. These places are ruled by majorities of “liberals” who decry, with increasing fervor, the rapid rise in economic inequality. Nationally, 90% of Democrats (and 45% of Republicans) believe the government should act to reduce the rich-poor gap.

It is easy to be opposed to inequality in the abstract. So why are Los Angeles and Palo Alto spending virtually none of their budgets on efforts to provide housing for the very poor and homeless? When the most obvious evidence of inequality parks on their street, it appears, even liberals would rather just call the police. The word from the car: if you’re not going to do anything to help, please don’t make things worse.

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The commons lies at the heart of a major cultural and social shift now underway.

The New Economic Events Giving Lie to the Fiction That

We Are All Selfish, Rational Materialists

Photo Credit: AllanGregg; Screenshot / YouTube.com

Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, “The Zero Marginal Cost Society,” brings welcome new attention to the commons just as it begins to explode in countless new directions. His book focuses on one of the most significant vectors of commons-based innovation — the Internet and digital technologies — and documents how the incremental costs of nearly everything is rapidly diminishing, often to zero. Rifkin explored the sweeping implications of this trend in an excerpt from his book and points to the “eclipse of capitalism” in the decades ahead.

But it’s worth noting that the commons is not just an Internet phenomenon or a matter of economics. The commons lies at the heart of a major cultural and social shift now underway. People’s attitudes about corporate property rights and neoliberal capitalism are changing as cooperative endeavors — on digital networks and elsewhere — become more feasible and attractive. This can be seen in the proliferation of hackerspaces and Fablabs, in the growth of alternative currencies, in many land trusts and cooperatives and in seed-sharing collectives and countless natural resource commons.

Beneath the radar screen of mainstream politics, which remains largely clueless about such cultural trends on the edge, a new breed of commoners is building the vision of a very different kind of society, project by project. This new universe of social activity is being built on the foundation of a very different ethics and social logic than that of homo economicus — the economist’s fiction that we are all selfish, utility-maximizing, rational materialists.

Durable projects based on social cooperation are producing enormous amounts of wealth; it’s just that this wealth is not generally not monetized or traded. It’s socially or ecologically embedded wealth that is managed by self-styled commoners themselves. Typically, such commoners act more as stewards of their common wealth than as owners who treat it as private capital. Commoners realize that a life defined by impersonal transactions is not as rich or satisfying as one defined by abiding relationships. The larger trends toward zero-marginal-cost production make it perfectly logical for people to seek out commons-based alternatives.

You can find these alternatives popping up all over: in the 10,000-plus open access scientific journals whose research is freely shareable to anyone and in community gardens that produce both fresh vegetables and neighborliness. In hundreds of “timebanks” that let people meet basic needs through time-barters, and in highly productive, ecologically minded commons-based agriculture.

Economists tend to ignore such wealth because it generally doesn’t involve market activity. No cash is exchanged, no legal contracts signed and no measureable Gross Domestic Product is generated. But the wealth of the commons is not accumulated like capital; its vitality comes from being circulated. As I describe in my new book, “Think Like a Commoner,” the story of our time is the rise of the commons as a new way to emancipate oneself from predatory markets and to collaborate with peers to protect and expand one’s shared wealth. This is a story that is being played out in countless digital arenas, as Rifkin documents, but also in such diverse contexts as cities, farming, museums, theaters and indigenous communities.

One reason that so many commons arise and flourish is because they help their participants meet important basic needs in fair, responsive and socially satisfying ways. That’s quite attractive to those who are otherwise held captive by conventional, predatory markets. Big agriculture is more concerned with efficiency and profit than ecological stewardship. Large transnationals are more interested in rip-and-run resource extraction (mining, fracking, timber) than in the protection of sacred lands and time-honored ways of life. “Copyright industries” like Hollywood and record labels want to treat all of culture as tightly controlled “product,” not as something that is freely shared and built upon.

Nowadays the commons has a special appeal for people of the global South who are often victimized by the “enclosures” inflicted by neoliberal investment and trade policies. Enclosures are the act of privatizing and commodifying previously shared resources. For example, millions of acres of land in Africa, Asia and Latin America are currently being seized by investors in a massive international land grab. Hedge funds and even the government of South Korea, Saudi Arabia and China are enacting an eerie replay of the English enclosure movement. Commoners who have worked the land for generations as a customary right are being forced to migrate to cities in search of work, where they often end up as paupers and sweatshop employees: a modern-day replay of Charles Dickens’ novels.

By the lights of modern economic theory, it’s all for the best because it promotes “development” (i.e., consumerism and other market dependencies). But many commoners are now fighting the dispossession and dependencies that enclosures entail by struggling to retain some measure of dignity and self-determination through their commons. The International Land Alliance estimates that 2 billion people around the world depend upon subsistence commons of forests, fisheries, arable land, water and wild game to meet their everyday needs.

Strangely, the leading introductory economics textbooks in the U.S. virtually ignore the commons except for the obligatory warning about the “tragedy of the commons.” They prefer not to recognize that the commons represents an entirely viable but different paradigm of “development” – one that can transcend the unsustainable consumerism, cultural disintegration and economic growth of our time. As the late Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom showed, commons are an entirely sustainable, ecologically friendly model of resource management, contrary to the “tragedy” parable.

Commoners are not all alike. They have many profound differences in their governance systems, management practices and cultural values. And commons are not without their conflicts, struggles and failures. That said, most commoners tend to share fundamental commitments to participation, openness, inclusiveness, social equity, ecological respect and human rights.

The politics of the commons movement can be confounding to conventional observers because political goals are not the paramount priority; protection of the commons is. Commoners tend to be more focused on “prepolitical” social activity and relationships, which is why commons are embraced by such a wide variety of people. As German commons advocate Silke Helfrich notes in The Wealth of the Commons, “Commons draw from the best of all political ideologies.” Conservatives like the tendency of commons to promote responsibility. Liberals are pleased with the focus on equality and basic social entitlement. Libertarians like the emphasis on individual initiative. And leftists like the idea of limiting the scope of the Market.

It is important to realize that the commons is not a discussion about objects, but a discussion about who we are and how we treat each other. What decisions are being made about our resources? Does economic activity satisfy basic human needs and honor human rights and dignity? These kind of discussions are not often heard in in conventional business and policy circles, alas.

To conventional minds, the idea of the commons as a paradigm of social governance appears either utopian or communistic, or at the very least, impractical. But a diverse, eclectic universe of commons around the world demonstrates otherwise. It is the neoliberal project of ever-expanding consumption on a global scale that is the utopian, totalistic dream. It manifestly cannot fulfill its mythological vision of human progress through ubiquitous market activity and greater heaps of private consumption, if only because it demands more from Nature than it can possibly deliver – while inflicting too much social inequity and disruption as well.

Fortunately, the Internet and indigenous peoples, the re-localization movement and hackers, community foresters and fishing cooperatives and many, many others, are showing that the commons can be an effective vehicle for social and political emancipation. Jeremy Rifkin’s astute analysis of this powerful trend will help open up a much-needed discussion in the stodgy precincts of conventional economics.

David A. Bollier is an author, activist, blogger and independent scholar with a primary focus on “the commons” as a new paradigm for economics, politics, and culture. He is the founding editor of Onthecommons.org (2002-2010), co-founder and principal of the international consulting project Commons Strategy Group, and co-director of the Commons Law Project. Bollier is the author of numerous books, including “Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons.”

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Employee pensions under attack in the US

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By Andre Damon
15 April 2014

The American financial elite has launched a sweeping nationwide assault on the pension benefits of US workers in both the public and private sectors.

Following the example of the city of Detroit, municipalities and states throughout the country, including Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania, have sought to slash government workers’ legally protected pension benefits on the grounds that there is no money to pay for the “generous” retirement benefits that are owed to workers for decades of labor.

Now, private sector pensions, already decimated in the wave of corporate bankruptcies and buyouts that took place in the 1980s, are coming under renewed attack. In particular, multi-employer pension funds, once considered more secure than those operated by single employers, are being targeted for cutbacks.

The New York Times reported Saturday, “Labor officials, business groups, members of Congress and others have been quietly discussing a proposal to extend multiemployer plans’ life spans by letting them roll back even retirees’ pensions.”

Private employee pension funds have been over the course of decades starved of contributions by the corporations that are legally obliged to finance them. This is true not only of standard single-employer pension funds, but also larger, union-affiliated multi-employer funds, which provide retirement benefits for some 10 million Americans.

The Times noted that one major pension plan, the Teamsters’ Central States plan, pays out $2.8 billion per year in retirement funds, but only takes in about $700 million from corporations. The plan’s director said he expects the plan to run out of money in 10 to 15 years.

The multi-employer arm of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the government agency that insures private pensions, is expected to run out of funds within seven years, according to a report issued in February by the Congressional Budget Office.

Last year, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation posted a record deficit of $35.7 billion. “Within the next 10 years, more and more plans are going to run out of money,” said Joshua Gotbaum, director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp, in a November report.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, enacted in 1974, forbids companies from cutting their employees’ pension obligations for work they have already performed. But a subsequent 2006 law, signed by George W. Bush, allowed under-funded multi-employer pensions to stop paying some benefits, such as disability, death benefits, and early retirement.

The PBGC was conceived as self-financing, with insurance payouts to be covered by premiums paid by corporations. But these premiums have been steadily dwindling, as successive administrations from both parties have introduced loopholes to allow companies to reduce their contributions.

The Times noted that the PBGC multi-employer fund “now has premiums of about $110 million a year to work with. All it would take is the failure of one big plan to wipe out the whole program.”

Defined benefit pensions now cover only 18 percent of private-sector workers, down from 35 percent in the 1990s, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These pension plans have largely been replaced by completely inadequate defined-contribution 401(k) plans. The bureau of labor statistics found that the median households aged 55–64 with a retirement savings account had just $100,000 to retire, or about twice the yearly household income for older households.

The calls to slash private pensions are coupled with renewed attacks on public sector retirement benefits. Last week, the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates reported that public pensions in the United States have only $3 trillion in assets to cover some $10 trillion in scheduled payments over the coming decades. According to the report, 85 percent of public pensions will run out of funds within three decades.

These funds are insolvent because they have been looted by state and local officials to cover the billions of dollars in local tax cuts and incentives that have been handed out to big business over the course of the past several decades. Now, the Democratic and Republican politicians who have starved the pension funds are calling for workers’ pensions to be slashed to keep the funds solvent.

  • In Detroit, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has proposed to slash city workers’ pensions by 26 percent—or 34 percent if workers do not vote in favor of the deal. These pension cuts, coupled with equally draconian cuts to their dental, vision, and health insurance coverage, will effectively reduce their incomes by more than 50 percent. 10 percent of Detroit city retirees already live below the poverty line, and pension officials have said that the cuts will force at least another 20 percent into poverty.
  • On April 8, the Illinois legislature voted in favor of a law proposed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel that will slash pensions for 57,000 city laborers and municipal employees. The law eliminates the workers’ cost-of-living increases, meaning that, as years go by, their pensions will be whittled down enormously.
  • A group of California Democrats, led by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, is campaigning for the implementation of a constitutional amendment to remove the state’s protections on public employee pensions. With the proposed amendment, cities, counties, and other government entities could lower cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. In addition, they could increase the retirement age or demand larger pension contributions from current employees.
  • Last month, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, announced plans to cut pensions for hundreds of thousands of state employees and teachers covered by the state’s pension system. The proposal would switch new workers to a 401(k)-style retirement plan, while even further underfunding existing pension plans. “The only question is whether we will do it now, when it’s still a manageable problem, or let others do it later,” said Corbett.

Even as retirement benefits are being slashed, on the grounds that there is supposedly no money to pay for them, the super-rich are doing better than ever. Last week, Equilar, the executive compensation research firm, reported that the 100 top-earning corporate CEOs had their median pay increase by 9 percent in 2013, to $13.9 million.

How the Corporate Takeover of Society Is Leaving Us Feeling Empty Inside

Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace  

They big corporations do not represent us and they have no right to run our lives.

How do you engineer a bland, depoliticised world, a consensus built around consumption and endless growth, a dream world of materialism and debt and atomisation, in which all relations can be prefixed with a dollar sign, in which we cease to fight for change? You delegate your powers to companies whose profits depend on this model.

Power is shifting: to places in which we have no voice or vote. Domestic policies are forged by special advisers and spin doctors, by panels and advisory committees stuffed with lobbyists. The self-hating state withdraws its own authority to regulate and direct. Simultaneously, the democratic vacuum at the heart of global governance is being filled, without anything resembling consent, by international bureaucrats and corporate executives. The NGOs permitted – often as an afterthought – to join them intelligibly represent neither civil society nor electorates. (And please spare me that guff about consumer democracy or shareholder democracy: in both cases some people have more votes than others, and those with the most votes are the least inclined to press for change.)

To me, the giant consumer goods company Unilever, with which I clashed over the issue of palm oil a few days ago, symbolises these shifting relationships. I can think of no entity that has done more to blur the lines between the role of the private sector and the role of the public sector. If you blotted out its name while reading its web pages, you could mistake it for an agency of the United Nations.

It seems to have representation almost everywhere. Its people inhabit (to name a few) the British government’s Ecosystem Markets Task Force and Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the G8′s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the World Food Programme, the Global Green Growth Forum, the UN’s Scaling Up Nutrition programme, itsSustainable Development Solutions NetworkGlobal Compact and theUN High Level Panel on global development.

Sometimes Unilever uses this power well. Its efforts to reduce its own use of energy and water and its production of waste, and to project these changes beyond its own walls, look credible and impressive. Sometimes its initiatives look to me like self-serving bullshit.

Its “Dove self-esteem project”, for instance, claims to be “helping millions of young people to improve their self-esteem through educational programmes”. One of its educational videos maintains that beauty “couldn’t be more critical to your happiness“, which is surely the belief that trashes young people’s self-esteem in the first place. But of course you can recover it by plastering yourself with Dove-branded gloop: Unilever reports that 82% of women in Canada who are aware of its project “would be more likely to purchase Dove“.

Sometimes it seems to play both ends of the game. For instance, it says it is reducing the amount of salt and fat and sugar in its processed foods. But it also hosted and chaired, before the last election, the Conservative party’s public health commission, which was seen by health campaigners as an excuse for avoiding effective action on obesity, poor diets and alcohol abuse. This body helped to purge government policy of such threats as further advertising restrictions and the compulsorytraffic-light labelling of sugar, salt and fat.

The commission then produced a “responsibility deal” between government and business, on the organising board of which Unilever still sits. Under this deal, the usual relationship between lobbyists and government is reversed. The corporations draft government policy, which is then sent to civil servants for comment. Regulation is replaced by voluntarism. The Guardian has named Unilever as one of the companies that refused to sign the deal’s voluntary pledge on calorie reduction.

This is not to suggest that everything these panels and alliances and boards and forums propose is damaging. But as the development writer Lou Pingeot points out, their analysis of the world’s problems is partial and self-serving, casting corporations as the saviours of the world’s people but never mentioning their role in causing many of the problems (such as financial crisis, land-grabbing, tax loss, obesity, malnutrition, climate change, habitat destruction, poverty, insecurity) they claim to address. Most of their proposed solutions either require passivity from governments (poverty will be solved by wealth trickling down through a growing economy) or the creation of a more friendly environment for business.

At best, these corporate-dominated panels are mostly useless: preening sessions in which chief executives exercise messiah complexes. At their worst, they are a means by which global companies reshape politics in their own interests, universalising – in the name of conquering want and exploitation – their exploitative business practices.

Almost every political agent – including some of the NGOs that once opposed them – is in danger of being loved to death by these companies. In February the Guardian signed a seven-figure deal with Unilever, which, the publisher claimed, is “centred on the shared values of sustainable living and open storytelling“. The deal launched an initiative called Guardian Labs, which will help brands find “more engaging ways to tell their story”. The Guardian points out that it has guidelines covering such sponsorship deals to ensure editorial independence.

I recognise and regret the fact that all newspapers depend for their survival on corporate money (advertising and sponsorship probably account, in most cases, for about 70% of their income). But this, to me, looks like another step down the primrose path. As the environmental campaigner Peter Gerhardt puts it, companies like Unilever “try to stakeholderise every conflict”. By this, I think, he means that they embrace their critics, involving them in a dialogue that is open in the sense that a lobster pot is open, breaking down critical distance and identity until no one knows who they are any more.

Yes, I would prefer that companies were like Unilever rather than Goldman Sachs, Cargill or Exxon, in that it seems to have a keen sense of what a responsible company should do, even if it doesn’t always do it. But it would be better still if governments and global bodies stopped delegating their powers to corporations. They do not represent us and they have no right to run our lives.

Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at monbiot.com

 

George Monbiot is the author Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. Read more of his writings at Monbiot.com. This article originally appeared in the Guardian.

Global Rankings Study Depicts an America in Warp Speed Decline

From access to healthcare and education, gender equality, attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, the U.S. looks like a second-rate nation.

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If America needed a reminder that it is fast becoming a second-rate nation, and that every economic policy of the Republican Party is wrongheaded, it got one this week with the release of the Social Progress Index (SPI).

Harvard business professor Michael E. Porter, who earlier developed the Global Competitiveness Report, designed the SPI. A new way to look at the success of countries, the SPI studies 132 nations and evaluates 54 social and environmental indicators for each country that matter to real people. Rather than measuring a country’s success by its per capita GDP, the index is based on an array of data reflecting suicide, ecosystem sustainability, property rights, access to healthcare and education, gender equality, attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, religious freedom, nutrition, infrastructure and more.

The index measures the livability of each country. People everywhere depend on and care about similar things. “We all need clean water. We all want to feel safe and live without fear. People everywhere want to get an education and improve their lives,” says Porter. But economic growth alone doesn’t guarantee these things.

While the U.S. enjoys the second highest per capita GDP of $45,336, it ranks in an underperforming 16th place overall. It gets worse. The U.S. ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety.

More surprising is the fact that despite being the home country of global tech heavyweights Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Oracle, and so on, the U.S. ranks a disappointing 23rd in access to the Internet. “It’s astonishing that for a country that has Silicon Valley, lack of access to information is a red flag,” notes Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, which oversees the index.

If this index is an affront to your jingoistic sensibilities, the U.S. remains in first place for the number of incarcerated citizens per capita, adult onset diabetes and for believing in angels.

New Zealand is ranked in first place in social progress. Interestingly, it ranks only 25th on GDP per capita, which means the island of the long white cloud is doing a far better job than America when it comes to meeting the need of its people. In order, the top 10 is rounded out by Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Denmark and Australia.

Unsurprisingly these nations all happen to rank highly in the 2013 U.N. World Happiness Report with Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden among the top five.

So, what of the U.S? In terms of happiness, we rank 17th, trailing neighboring Mexico.

We find ourselves languishing for the very fact we have allowed corporate America to hijack the entire Republican Party, and some parts of the Democratic Party. This influence has bought corporations and the rich a rigged tax code that has redistributed wealth from the middle class to the rich over the course of the past three decades. This lack of shared prosperity and opportunity has retarded our social progress.

America’s rapid descent into impoverished nation status is the inevitable result of unchecked corporate capitalism. By every measure, we look like a broken banana republic. Not a single U.S. city is included in the world’s top 10 most livable cities. Only one U.S. airport makes the list of the top 100 in the world. Our roads, schools and bridges are falling apart, and our trains — none of them high-speed — are running off their tracks.

With 95 percent of all economic gains funneled to the richest 1 percent over the course of the last decade, and a tax code that has starved the federal government of revenues to invest in public infrastructure, America will be a country divided by those who have and those who have not. In The World As It Is, Chris Hedges writes, “Our anemic democracy will be replaced with a robust national police state. The elite will withdraw into heavily guarded gated communities where they will have access to security, goods, and services that cannot be afforded by the rest of us. Tens of millions of people, brutally controlled, will live in perpetual poverty.”

This week the Republican Party rolled out its 2014 Ryan budget. Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that under the Ryan budget, “[affluent] Americans would do quite well. But for tens of millions of others, the Ryan plan is a path to more adversity.” Greenstein pointed out that the plan would leave millions without health insurance through repeal of the Affordable Care Act and changes to Medicaid funding.

Greenstein also criticized the budget for its impact on anti-poverty programs, estimating that it would slash basic food aid provided by SNAP by at least $135 billion and convert the program to a block grant, make it harder for low-income students to attend college and make massive unspecified cuts to domestic non-military spending, which means cuts to social welfare programs.

The countries ranked highest in social progress are doing the complete opposite. They’re investing in schools rather than drones. They’re expanding collective bargaining laws rather than busting unions. They’re providing their citizens with universal healthcare and education rather than selling these basic human rights to the highest bidder.

“Those who care about the plight of the working class and the poor must begin to mobilize quickly, or we will lose our last opportunity to save our embattled democracy. The most important struggle will be to wrest the organs of communication from corporations that use mass media to demonize movements of social change and empower protofascist movements such as the Christian Right,” observes Hedges.

It’s your move, America.

CJ Werleman is the author of “Crucifying America,” and “God Hates You. Hate Him Back.” Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

To Reduce the Health Risk of Barbecuing Meat, Just Add Beer

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“Grilling meat gives it great flavour. This taste, though, comes at a price, since the process creates molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which damage DNA and thus increase the eater’s chances of developing colon cancer. But a group of researchers led by Isabel Ferreira of the University of Porto, in Portugal, think they have found a way around the problem. When barbecuing meat, they suggest, you should add beer. The PAHs created by grilling form from molecules called free radicals which, in turn, form from fat and protein in the intense heat of this type of cooking. One way of stopping PAH-formation, then, might be to apply chemicals called antioxidants that mop up free radicals. And beer is rich in these, in the shape of melanoidins, which form when barley is roasted.”

~Slashdot~

Bipartisan assault on health care intensifies in US

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By Andre Damon
7 April 2014

Last week, US Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican Budget Committee chairman from Wisconsin, presented a budget proposal that would slash $5.1 trillion in government spending over the next decade, with the great majority of the cuts coming from health care spending.

The plan includes a proposal for a voucher system for Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly. This would be a major step toward the dismantling of the program by turning it into a government subsidy to buy private health insurance.

The White House and Congressional Democrats were quick to denounce the proposal. The White House said in a statement that the proposal would “end Medicare as we know it, turning it into a voucher program and risking a death spiral in traditional Medicare.” Obama likewise made a denunciation of the Republican budget the centerpiece of his weekly video address Saturday.

Representative Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, offered a vituperative denunciation of the deal, calling it “the Republican declaration of class warfare—it protects the elites at the expense of the rest of the country.”

What neither Obama nor Congressional Democrats mention is the fact that the Ryan budget, while vowing to repeal sections of the Affordable Care Act, in fact uses the cuts to Medicare implemented under the White House’s signature health care law as a starting point. The legislation, commonly known as Obamacare, cuts Medicare funding by some $500 billion through reduced compensation to doctors and hospitals.

In addition, the Affordable Care Act includes some $200 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage, the private alternative to Medicare Parts A and B, which was implemented under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, this would constitute a 5.9 percent funding cut to the program, raising premiums for beneficiaries by between $35 to $75 a month. The White House is due to announce its final proposal for next year’s cuts to Medicare Advantage on Monday.

The parallels between Obama’s Affordable Care Act and Ryan’s proposal go much deeper. While the White House and its Democratic and pseudo-left apologists strenuously avoid calling Obamacare a voucher system, this is precisely what it is. It is a requirement that individuals buy private insurance, with inadequate subsidies, or face a penalty. Its implementation is in fact a model for privatizing Medicare itself.

As always, the Republican proposal will also become the benchmark for negotiations between the two big business parties, shifting the entire framework of political discussion even further to the right.

An ever-greater section of the population is coming to the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act constitutes a handout to major insurance companies, an attack on bedrock social programs and a pretext for companies to drop their existing health insurance coverage.

The passage of Obamacare has also set the stage for a significant number of Fortune 500 companies—including Target, Home Depot, Trader Joe’s and Forever 21—to eliminate health care coverage for their employees. In his new book, Reinventing American Health Care, former White House advisor Ezekiel J. Emanuel concludes that the Affordable Care Act sets the stage for “the end of employer-sponsored health insurance,” and that “by 2025 few private-sector employers will still be providing health insurance.”

While the White House has delayed elements of the Affordable Care Act affecting businesses, it has made absolutely clear that it will not budge on the so-called individual mandate, which forces any uninsured person who does not sign up on the health care exchanges, or lapses in their payments, to pay a fine of $95 or 1 percent of their income, whichever is higher. The penalty increases to 2 percent of income in 2015 and 2.5 percent of income in 2016. For a worker making $25,000 per year, the 2016 fine will amount to $625 per year.

Those who have purchased coverage under the Obamacare exchanges have found that the most affordable plans carry deductibles as high as $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for families, which must be paid in full before most coverage kicks in. The average premium under the Affordable Care Act is $328 a month.

Once individuals purchase an Obamacare insurance plan, they are effectively locked in, with almost no ability to change their coverage if they are not satisfied. Now, with over 7 million customers signed up, insurers are reporting that they are planning significant increases in the premiums they are charging.

Last month, the Hill reported, citing anonymous health insurance providers, that “ObamaCare-related premiums will double in some parts of the country.” The newspaper reported one insurance official who “said his company expects to triple its rates next year.”

Just a few weeks later, WellPoint Inc., a major health insurance provider under the Affordable Care Act, predicted “double-digit-plus” rate increases. “On a year-over-year basis on our exchanges, and it will vary by carrier, but all of them will probably be in double-digit plus,” said one of the company’s executives in an investor meeting last month.

Chet Burrell, chief executive officer of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, reemphasized this point, telling Reuters last week, “I do think that it’s likely premium rate shocks are coming.”

The bipartisan character of the attack on health care is an expression of the fact that, for all the supposed “partisan gridlock” in American politics, the Democratic and Republican parties are entirely united in their plans to gut Medicare, eliminate employer-based health care, and create an even more class-based health care system, in which the poor and working people are barred from access to lifesaving medical treatment.

Am I My Brother or Sister’s Keeper?

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The Unequal Divide

by JOHN K. WHITE

One could imagine that inequality has been around forever, part of a natural process whenever people or groups compete. Today’s obscene levels of inequality, however, suggest that the divide is not a natural condition of human existence, but a product of how we compete, with the rich always getting richer. In any competitive society, there will always be winners and losers. In a stacked, speed-of-light trading society, big winners and big losers.

We see it everywhere. Fewer children from poor backgrounds go to university, higher levels of incarceration for those in bottom-income brackets, death rates among the less well-off much higher than average. In fact, increased poverty is directly related to increases in cancer and stroke, a correlation unchanged since the late 19th century and the start of modern economic practice.

In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Wilkinson and Pickett cited the greater likelihood of health problems the greater the divide between rich and poor, including depression, heart disease, and drug addiction. In case after case, they show how health and social problems are a function of zip code, alarmingly depicting how mortality rates are almost double for the poor (~90 per 10,000) compared to the rich (~50 per 10,000).

The effect on the economy is devastating, where wealth instead of merit determines who succeeds and fails, ripping apart lives and communities. In the process, the rich get richer, because a leg up at the start magnifies the discrepancy between winners and losers. In Stock Buybacks and Margin Debt (April 1), Mike Whitney noted that the top 20 percent own over 85 percent of financial assets. All because of a financial feedback loop, stacked in favour of those in the know.

We are all familiar with feedback loops, from the screeching sound of a microphone held too close to a speaker to the snowballing effect of exponential doubling. Division over a small number, excessive bank leverage, or the focusing power of a lens, which magnifies the output relative to the input, is similar.

Feedbacks loops apply especially to markets: VHS beating Betamax in video recording, despite being a poorer technology; Microsoft topping Apple in the operating system wars; Donald Trump buying his own book to make the best-seller list. A small advantage leads to a dominant market share. The rich profiting more and more from cheap, disenfranchised labour.

Think of a movie that became a summer hit. Why did it succeed when others failed—word of mouth, advertising, poor competition? It isn’t always down to merit. As noted by Frank and Cook in The Winner-Take-All Society: Why The Few At The Top Get So Much More Than The Rest Of Us, “In all these processes, small differences at the early stages of competition can prove decisive.”

The basics of a feedback system can be seen in a simple game from evolutionary theory, which shows how one player (or side or gene or species) ultimately ends up dominating another when in competition (or reaches “fixation” in evolutionary parlance). The computational rules are easy: Put 50 red and 50 black marbles into a bag, double the number of each, then randomly select 100 from the new 200. The number of red (or black) marbles is observed over a series of trials (double the 100 to 200, randomly choose 100 from the new 200, etc.), showing the evolution of each marble “species.”

As one might expect, one colour (or side or gene or species) eventually dominates the other (100-0), despite the randomness of the selection process, and sooner than later if the original balance is biased. A little push at the start makes a huge difference, highlighting the winner-take-all nature of a feedback loop.

Capitalism, however, is meant to reduce prices with increased competition, where companies adapt to create viable alternatives with competitive prices. An enlightened, supposed Christian society is also meant to help those who haven’t climbed aboard the life train. Everybody knows not to leave friends and family behind.

It would seem that competition itself is the problem, where the irony is that the more successful a venture, the more market share it realizes, which creates an advantage or monopoly position for some and, thus, less competition. In the process, we become losers in the race to pay more as our world becomes swamped with profit-only-minded junk and inefficient consumption. Without controls and intermediation, such success overheats the system. Always.

Indeed, the levels of inequality are becoming greater. Economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have been reminding us for decades about the widening income gap and the missed opportunities for the talented to succeed. Instead, our failed financial system has created swaths of unemployed with marginalized lives. Another Nobel economist, James Heckman noted that “skills beget skills” and “motivation begets motivation,” showing a tenfold return for every dollar invested on the very young. According to Heckman, it is much better to help the disadvantaged at the earliest age possible, because a later, albeit well-intentioned intervention is much less effective. If only to stop the unfair feedback loop from feeding back to those who need it least.

The numbers really are shameful. Oxfam recently calculated that 85 people have as much wealth as half the world. In The Harder You Work, the Richer They Get (March 28), Peter Dolack noted that the world’s top billionaires have “an aggregate net worth of US$6.4 trillion, an increase of $1 trillion in just one year.” Yet minimum wages for workers keep decreasing, making it harder for many families to survive. Dolack noted that the minimum wage in 1963 was less than $2 or $15.25 in inflation-adjusted dollars, yet the minimum wage today is only $7.25. Relatively speaking, we’re going backwards. A more dignified and appropriate $15-rate makes sense, to get people working in authentic ways.

Sadly, modern economics is a zero-sum game with money as its measure. The billionaires should be ashamed. We’re meant to be building societies with shared goals not gated communities under a pretend umbrella of liberty.

Imagine if Warren Buffet received only 50 cents on each dollar he invested. If Berkshire Hathaway kept losing like everyday workers are, Buffet would be out of a job, possibly ending up collecting food stamps with the 47 million other “unfortunate” Americans. I doubt it, but maybe then the needed politics would follow.

But at every turn, the system is stacked, rewarding those with insider knowledge and privileged access. Turning a small advantage into a huge advantage. Major corporations and multi-millionaires pay less tax than you or I. For example, Apple paying 0.5 percent on its Irish profits of over $7 billion. Others shelter their money because of preferred access to a members-only financial system. Michael Lewis even stated that the stock market is rigged in favour of the technologically elite, further separating the winners and losers.

Of course, when those same elites crash the system, the public pays. Fines are never appropriate, burdening the rest who end up “socializing” the costs. Fines related to the 2008 meltdown were only a small fraction of holdings—less than 0.2% to settle charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission against Citigroup, or roughly one week’s profits. Goldman Sachs paid only $550 million or 2 weeks’ profits to settle charges that it sold subprime investments secretly designed to fail, while no senior executives were charged.

In today’s ultra-fast wired world, winners become bigger winners, sheltering more, paying less, receiving more advantage, getting better access and extra privileges at every stage. The haves and the have nots have become the good and the bad as labelled by the wealth-obsessed game players.

To be sure, many are still mired in a Social Darwinist past, thinking that money is the only measure, believing in failed “trickle-down” economics, claiming that a rising tide raises all boats, a common refrain when talking about economic investment and growth.

But it just isn’t so, when some don’t have boats. Or if they do, a leaky raft compared to a luxury yacht, without access to state-of-the-art protection, insurance, radar. Even an engine. In fact, a rising tide destroys many boats. It may be fun to imagine, but tides aren’t a useful comparison. If they were, it would be more apt to say that an economic tsunami has been wiping out our world.

It’s hard to believe we are still arguing over basic ideological differences between left and right, when it is greed that is to blame. But imagine a world where people and not bank accounts were used to determine wealth. Imagine a world where the very rich recognized their complicity in the pain of others. Martin Luther King summed it up best 65 years ago when he noted that truth could not be found in either communism or capitalism:

[C]apitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity. Thus capitalism can lead to a practical materialism that is as pernicious as the materialism taught by communism.

Or new Federal Reserve chairwoman, Janet Yellen, who in her first public speech, told the story of three unemployed people: “They are a reminder that there are real people behind the statistics.”

We have to end our basest obsession, the money game. We cannot all be rich, and if we’re not careful, the whole system will come crashing down. Am I my brother or sister’s keeper? Sadly, that seems to depend on who I consider my brother or sister. The human family has become divided by the cruellest of measures: our own selfishness. What a crying shame.

JOHN K. WHITE, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/02/the-unequal-divide/

 

United States Is Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading to Poor, UN Report Charges



The UN Human Rights Committee says the U.S. should stop criminalizing homeless people for being homeless.

Photo Credit: CBS New York; Screenshot / YouTube.com

Jerome Murdough, 56, a mentally ill homeless veteran, was just trying to stay alive during a New York City cold snap when he thought he found his spot: a stairwell leading to a roof in a Harlem public housing project. But that desperate act set in motion a nightmare ride through New York’s criminal justice system that would end with Murdough dying of heat stroke in a Riker’s Island jail cell. New York officials now say the system failed Murdough every which way.

When he was discovered, he should have been offered shelter. When he was arraigned, he should not have been slapped with $2,500 bail. When, unable to make bail, he ended up in jail, Murdough, because he was on medication for a mental condition, should have been monitored every 15 minutes, not left unwatched for at least four hours. It was during that untended time that Murdough, as an official told the Associated Press, “basically baked to death.”

Now, as New York officials discuss the “tragedy” of last month and scapegoat one Riker’s Island guard for Murdough’s death — suspending him for 20 days — the United Nations has taken notice. Murdough is just the latest statistic in a series of needless deaths of homeless people while under arrest for “crimes” related to being unhoused, such as loitering or trespassing.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva on Thursday condemned the United States for criminalizing homelessness, calling it “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” that violates international human rights treaty obligations. It also called upon the U.S. government to take corrective action, following a two-day review of U.S. government compliance with a human rights treaty ratified in 1992.

“I’m just simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter,” said Sir Nigel Rodley, chairman of the committee in closing statements on the U.S. review. “The idea of criminalizing people who don’t have shelter is something that I think many of my colleagues might find as difficult as I do to even begin to comprehend.”

The Committee called on the U.S. to abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels, intensify efforts to find solutions for homeless people in accordance with human rights standards and offer incentives for decriminalization, including giving local authorities funding for implementing alternatives and withholding funding for criminalizing the homeless.

Those recommendations run counter to the current trends in the nation. Laws targeting the homeless—loitering laws that ban sleeping or sitting too long in one public spot, or camping in parks overnight—have become increasingly common in communities throughout the country as homelessness has skyrocketed.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), a D.C.-based advocacy organization which monitors laws that criminalize homeless people and litigates on behalf of poor people regularly conducts reviews of cities criminalizing homelessness and finds more and more laws banning such activities as sitting or lying in public places with each new survey.

“We welcome the Committee’s Concluding Observations and call on our government to take swift action to solve homelessness with homes, not jails and prisons,” said Maria Foscarinis, the NLCHP executive director, in a statement. The NLCHP had submitted a report to the U.N. Committee for review.

Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an umbrella organization of advocacy groups in the Western U.S. that is hoping states will sign onto a Bill of Rights for homeless people, said that more and more homeless people are being arrested, prosecuted and killed for actions relating to their poverty.

“The U.S. seems to talk a much bigger rhetoric than it practices,” he said. “At the U.N. level, we have a horrible growing record of supporting repressive regimes, and as we bring our neo-liberal policies to America, we’re doing the same thing here.”

On March 16, a homeless man in Albuquerquewas shot and killed by police who were attempting to arrest him for illegal camping. James Boyd, 38 years old with a history of mental illness, was shot dead by Albuquerque police while his back was turned after a three-hour stand-off. Boyd, armed with a small knife, appeared to be surrendering when he was gunned down. The incident was caught on one of the officer’s helmet-cams and has been posted on YouTube by at least half a dozen news outlets.

Albuquerque police officials had concluded that the shooting was justified, but the FBI has since announced it is launching an investigation into the incident and said it is already probing 23 officer-involved shootings in Albuquerque since 2010. On Sunday, hundreds of people marched through Albuquerque to protest the number of police shootings in the city, a day-long event that ended when police fired tear gas into the crowd.

Evelyn Nieves is a senior contributing writer and editor at AlterNet, living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/un-human-rights-committee-united-states-cruel-inhuman-and-degrading-poor?akid=11662.265072.tklvbX&rd=1&src=newsletter977049&t=5&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark